The people of East County had better start paying attention to what is transpiring with the CONFIRE ballot measure because should that go down, we lose our most precious asset which is the backup of CONFIRE engines and firefighters when things get hectic out here.
With just 9 firefighters on duty to protect 250-square miles, we need CONFIRE more than they need us. I would encourage folks to pay attention to what is happening in that measure battle because should that go down, East County is in for a world of hurt come next summer.
By way of a 4-1 vote, the Contra Costa Fire Protection District Board agreed to put the $75-a-year parcel tax to public vote on Nov. 6. In doing so, it opens the doors for the political rhetoric to begin which is already occurring.
The purpose for the tax is because the District has had to spend $26 million in reserves since 2008 because 90% of its revenue comes from property tax and when the property tax revenue goes down, it impacts the District. A failure of the tax means the District will close 7-10 stations which will affect all levels of service within the District—meaning no one will be safe which includes East County.
A statement I’d like to make about this problem is no matter what anyone claims, this is not a spending or a pension problem, but rather its a revenue problem which was explained during yesterdays District meeting
What I am not going to do in this post is spend much time on the anti-parcel tax folks because I will never change their mind. What I will do is share a lot of the fabulous information from yesterday’s meeting and some of the comments from those who participated—it’s a shame the newspapers did not provide a lot of the details.
First off, I want to address Supervisor/Board Member Candace Andersen who is clearly out of her league on this issue and is flat out wrong—of course, the anti-tax folks are praising her today. What is silly about those praising her actions are these folks apparently lack an attention span. Just a few hours earlier she voted to support a labor union in the District Attorney’s Office (who supported her campaign and more importantly she is a former District Attorney) and then flip-flopped on the Fire Department who’s services are equally important and even more relevant to keeping a safer Contra Costa County. Her votes conflicted with one another (the DA’s union did NOT have a “plan” which she suddenly required from the fire department). She is apparently playing favorites.
What Ms. Andersen is ultimately suggesting is taking this decision out of the voters hand in order to wait until a full-plan is in place to close the gap which would postpone this parcel tax vote until June at the earliest.
If she keeps up with this attitude she has shown during the last two meetings, she will not make it four-years as Supervisor.
She states she has invested much time in learning the issues with the District and has been talking with firefighters about volunteering pension reform and changes. That’s great, but the Board has already been down that road and it failed due to state and federal law along with the IRS.
Here is the dialogue from yesterday’s meeting on this.
Anderson: We can’t impose changes on existing pensions, but they can be agreed to change.
Gioia: We need to be 100% accurate here. There is 1 of 2 ways for change.
1. Negotiate with union and union agrees to having prospective service under lower pension tier. All it takes is 1 or 2 members who disagree and they can sue and it falls apart. Means union cant bargain change.
2. In case of those members who want to change going forward (volunteer), we are prevented from doing that from IRS.
Gioia: Vince can correct me, but I would bet firefighters would agree to that. But Federal Law prevents us from that. So its really important for the public to realize this is a change under State and Federal Law. We are trying to get the most we can get by working together.
Anderson: Explained again how she has been exploring this with the IRS and a decision is coming that may address this problem
Piepho: We have been waiting for that same IRS decision for 5 years. We keep waiting and waiting.
As you can see, Andersen really is being ignorant on the problem and issue at hand. More importantly, what Andersen is doing is changing the message of the proposed parcel tax from a public safety problem to a pension problem—it’s clearly two separate issues that need to be addressed with two different solutions.
Pensions are not on the ballot, public safety is. The message from the District needs to be a universal “stations must remain open”. What Ms. Andersen is doing is playing into the hands of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association by getting a Supervisors/Director to change the message which will confuse voters and ultimately kills the entire ballot measure. In fact, her voting against the measure is all the opponents needed which she may have already killed it with her naive behavior.
I don’t want to use the word menace to describe her actions, but she came pretty close to being one. Lets just say she damaged the message which the purpose of the ballot measure is public safety, not pension reform. Going forward, I hope Ms. Andersen realizes her error and can publicly support this Measure by issuing a statement.
Second, I want to address Kris Hunt of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association because as the months go forward, it cannot be forgotten that she provided the Board with her updated numbers/plan about 10 minutes before the vote. This political ploy allows her to now claim in the future she provided information and a plan before the vote which she will take full advantage of— it was too little, too late after Supervisors Piepho and Glover scolded her weeks prior for not offering solutions.
The truth is, she could have had a plan submitted to the board months ago with the figures she had because they have not changed. Instead, she is playing political games waiting for the last possible minute. Check the video from yesterday’s meeting; she didn’t submit a comment card until after Gill Guerrero spoke which was near the very end of public comments!
Here are some other discussions that occurred during the meeting.
Anderson: June 26 meeting, concern about parcel tax as it’s not a solution to the problem… even with the parcel tax, still indicates by fiscal year 2015-16 (3rd year) that we see a deficit of $1.4 million.
Jackie Lorrekovich, Chief of Administrative Services, stated she used worst case scenarios while naming about five or six things which should push the estimate of year three back a year or two—it could be as many as four or five. With that said, she did make the point that the further projects get out, the more the more we lose how accurate the projects are.
That is a pretty powerful statement as CoCo Tax likes to point out projections from many years in the future—projections are what they are which is nothing more than a placeholder for the time being. Funding levels, laws, situations and figures change which certainly effects projections!
Andersen then proceeds to ask Ms. Lorrekovich how quickly she can get updated numbers with another tier for education purposes for voters so they can have a complete picture—she responded we already do that with actuaries. So even there Ms. Andersen doesn’t understand the numbers and what has been done to prepare for the possible measure.
Gioia commented that “This parcel tax is not intended to solve 100% of the problem and for those to say we see red ink—well that’s because we know we have other things to do in addition to the parcel tax to close the gap,” stated Gioia.
The BOS know that its irresponsible to ask the voters to pay for 100% of the problem to close the gap, the BOS is taking a shared responsibility approach which takes time which is all the BOS is asking voters to do, give them time.
“The impression should not be because there is red ink, it means we don’t have a plan,” stated Gioia.
“Does the 10% pay cut have an effect on pension costs?” asked Piepho. The chief responded yes it does because its calculated in their final pay which reduces long-term pension costs.
Gioia is correct, it has to be a shared responsibility because its not fair to any party. But pay attention to Supervisor Piepho’s question because what people are ignoring is when firefighters agree to a pay cut, it effects the future pension costs which in a way is a form of pension reduction which is what people are advocating.
William E. Granados (District 2 Advisory Fire Commission) explained their advisory committee recommends this goes on the ballot because of the state the district is in that they need it.
“This was never meant to close the gap as you call it, it simply meant to keep us afloat while we considered it (the gap) without drowning. If we don’t get this then with 7-10 stations closing we will be drowning,” stated Granados.
Ken Westerman, President of Contra Costa County Deputy Sheriffs, explained he supports the measure because on the street, Deputy Sheriffs work with the firefighters and he sees first hand their benefit to not only their sheriffs, but to the community.
“Normally we poke fun at the fireman, but when one of our own is shot and lying there bleeding when we see that big red truck coming, we are happy because they are capable, competent, and efficient,” said Westerman. “Same holds true to members of the public. Their response time is a matter of life and death and it’s important for the public to realize the big picture.”
A couple of things here that were beautiful. Granados who is on the advisory committee realizes this ballot measure buys time and states it so no one can claim this is a 100% solution, it buys time! Second, the firefighters not only help the public, but they help law enforcement during their time of need!
Chris Leimpeter gave a nice explanation about the District. “We ask the public to get education. They need to realize we are at bare bones minimum. We have 84 firefighters for 600,000 people. Compare that to other local District, we like to use Oakland. They have 54-quare miles; we have 300-square miles. They have 400,000 calls, we have 600,000 calls. They have 132 firefighters on duty each day, we have 84. The math is simple,” stated Leimpeter. “People throw out the 3% is for fire service, but if we take that 3% that is 1,400 fires per year. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. 50 years ago we just responded to fires, today fire service as evolved to many types of rescues.”
I urge folks to pay attention to Mr. Leimpeter numbers and use them. He is right, the math is pretty simple when you look at it that way. If I am East County, I am freaking out we have 9 firefighters on duty at one time to protect 250+ square miles while CONFIRE has just 50 additional square miles but has 75 more firefighters than we do!
Gill Guerrero, former captain now fire engineer thanks to Measure S failure, painted a nice picture of the before and after effects of Measure S. He explained that before station closures, fire crews were able to get to a building within a minute and saved a life. At essentially the same location after the closure, it took five minutes and they were unable to save a life.
“To hear ignorant statements that these are threats is horrible. These are ignorant statements that the public runs with. Those that lied about scare tactics (he turned around and looked at Kris Hunt), they are partially responsible for this recent death… we’ve never tried to scare, we try and educate,” said Guerrero.
Pay attention to Guerrero’s before and after tale. It will play out on many other situations going forward. The lies of the CoCo Tax has been exposed in that single example. For the record, some of these very same ignorant statements were printed in the Contra Costa Times today which is sad.
Florence Renet (spelling) provided a great explanation that provided some common sense to those who complain the firefighters and unions have not done enough. She explained that Chief Louder should ask for more than the $75 because they provide her with safety. But she went a step further in breaking down the numbers.
She explained that, “the $75 is $6.25 per month. That is 21 cents per day. It doesn’t matter what we call for they are here. They took a 10% pay cut. That is a lot for them. That is $538 a month they lose. What do we pay? $6! Take that $538 out over a year and that’s over $6,000. Over 7-years that’s over $45,000 they do not earn. That is what they give back to us!”
The beauty of this example is its so simple. Firefighters lost $538 a month, why can’t residents give up $6? When you look at it that way, its a no brainer to support the tax.
Then we get a clever political move by Kris Hunt who was educated (some may call scolded a few weeks ago for not doing her homework) who about 10 minutes before the vote handed the BOS her packet of “updated figures” and “plan” so that she can say she gave them something prior to the vote–remember Federal Glover asked for this solution weeks ago.
So going forward, don’t let her fool you when she says she gave the BOS her plan because when she gave it to the BOS, there was not time to sit down and discuss it.
With that said, Supervisor Gioia immediately thanked Ms. Hunt for helping the BOS make the case because based off her numbers, it shows the District has reduced costs to help close the gap.
“We have more challenges ahead, but we have made progress,” stated Gioia. “For those to say let’s not put this on the ballot because we haven’t shown how we will close the gap is 100% not realistic. We have more work to do. It’s not a perfect world and not all problems are solved the day we put it on the ballot. It’s a shared issue.”
Supervisor Mitchoff chimed in saying there is a philosophical issue about raising revenue while no one disagrees that the fire district needs more money as the revenue is not coming in.
“We can have discussion on pensions, but let’s deal with practicalities,” explained Mitchoff. “The fact that this is a tax increase, however, the fire district is funded by property tax which if property tax goes down, this reduces revenue. I am very happy to spend $75 with a $1,000 reduction in my property tax.”
Kudos to Supervisor Mitchoff who makes the point that if we are saving $1,000 from a bad economy, what is so harmful of giving up $75 to ensure stations remain open? Again, she points out this is a revenue problem, not a spending problem!
Supervisor Piepho appeared offended by the claim of scare tactics and for good reason. She explained this is not a simple majority vote; it’s a super majority vote.
“Scare tactics? I live in a District where half of the stations closed down. I am lucky my neighborhood station didn’t close. That is not a scare tactic, it’s a reality. Revenue isn’t there to provide service and staff, then to meet the budget, constrain, live within our means; those services will have to be reduced to meet the bottom line. They have to be. Living within our means, it means reduced stations and that’s what we will do,” said Piepho. “People will be affected, property will be affected. The only question is when will the stations close? This isn’t a school bond or classroom size debate about 20-30 kids in a classroom, but rather this is about life and death.
She went onto explain how a Bethel Island business insurance costs jumped over $200 a month after they lost their fire service and how they lost their ambulance on the Island.
“What we have control over is balancing the budget. We have balanced it so far with string, thread, bale wire and a safer grant, but we are at a critical point where we can’t continue to do what we are doing any longer. We can’t put personnel at risk, public safety at risk under the current economic model. If public says do more with less, then after the Measure we will do less with less when stations close,” explained Piepho.
This is not a simple majority vote, it’s a super-majority vote…. it is is small business being effects, this is peoples lives being effected. This isn’t 20 kids in a classroom vs. 30. There is going to be a cost associated. Either loss of home or loss of life. She gave example of Bethel Island insurance going up by double….
It boggles my mind how Supervisor Piepho can state reality and the opponents still claim scare tactics. If you don’t have money, stations close and services are reduced. What is so complicated about that? Apparently some just don’t understand it. At least the voters can decide if they want the District to do less with less!
Finally, we get into Candace Andersen statement about why she will oppose putting this on the ballot about an two-hours after she wanted to approve pay hikes for the District Attorneys while here wanting to cut fire services—I know, it’s illogical!
Andersen: in the past I have supported parcel taxes… the problem is I can’t support parcel tax yet because we don’t have a plan yet, we are not showing public how we can remain sustainable. As soon as we show a plan, I will be first one to advocate for it.
Gioia: We are asking for the public to give us time. We want a partnership to do our part… this is not a perfect world and have a time frame to put this on the ballot.
Motion Carries 4-1 (Anderson opposes)
Based off this meeting and the information provided, this measure should be a slam dunk if voters pay attention to facts and not rhetoric of the anti-tax folks. $75 is cheap when you look at the alternatives that could play out should services be reduced.
Below is a statement by Statement from United Professional Fire Fighters of Contra Costa County President Vince Wells following the vote.
Statement from United Professional Fire Fighters of Contra Costa County President Vince Wells
“Today, the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District took an unfortunate but necessary step to protect fire and emergency services for the residents of the district. Asking the voters to support a revenue measure is a last resort during this tough economy, but it is a critical piece of the long term plan to make up for essential revenue lost from property taxes and to maintain the 9-1-1 emergency services that keep our community safe. We will keep working with the Fire District and the community to continue closing the budget gap through cost saving measures, increased efficiencies, and much needed reform to the retirement system. Contra Costa’s firefighters, fire inspectors, fire investigators, and dispatchers respectfully ask the voters to support this revenue measure to provide our local community with the funding it needs to maintain basic fire and emergency services.”