Tuesday, January 10, 2012

(Contra Costa) Grand jury report questions need for fire district's $197 parcel tax

By Rowena Coetsee
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 01/07/2012 04:18:09 PM PST
Updated: 01/07/2012 09:04:51 PM PST

The East Contra Costa Fire District should offer taxpayers an alternative to the $197 parcel tax the cash-strapped agency is proposing, according to a recently released grand jury report.

The 2011-12 Contra Costa County grand jury late last month made the recommendation after researching the district's attempts to boost its income so it can reopen a fire station and hire more firefighters with advanced life support training.

The report concluded that the $8.6 million the district estimates the annual tax would generate the first year is significantly more than what's needed to provide these services. It advised the fire district to present property owners with alternative levels of service and the cost of each so it can make an informed decision when they vote on the ballot measure in June.

If the tax passes, district officials anticipate that they'll be able to ramp up manpower over five years from the 43 firefighters currently on the payroll -- all of whom are working overtime to fill the equivalent of 48 positions -- to 63 positions. The additional hires all would be paramedics, enabling the district eventually to have one per shift at each of the seven stations.

Unless it finds additional revenue or makes more cuts, the district expects to have exhausted its savings by June, when its ending fund balance will have dwindled to $480,000 -- a figure that doesn't include the cost of the election.

The grand jury report concluded that the district can't sustain the status quo -- a level of service it considers adequate -- without more money. But the report also indicated that at the end of five years, a $197 annual tax would leave the district with roughly $11.8 million in "unused funds."

In short, it said the district would end up with more than it needs to support the level of service it is proposing, resulting in substantial reserves.

The grand jury also recommended the district consider outsourcing all its current firefighting services to Cal Fire, noting that the state might be able to do the job more cost-effectively.

The district also might be able to reduce its overhead in the contract it's negotiating with the firefighters' union, the report said.

The grand jury's findings don't sit well with fire district board President Kevin Romick.

"There's really not much I agree with in here," he said. "I thought it was inappropriately biased against the parcel tax ... it was slanted from the get-go."

Romick disputes the report's determination that the current level of service is adequate because there have been no deaths and property losses directly attributable to a lack of firefighters or equipment.

He noted that multiple groups have studied the fire district over the years and found it unable to meet residents' needs. A consulting firm commissioned by county supervisors reached that conclusion in 2006, as did a previous grand jury, Romick said. Director Erick Stonebarger also questions how the grand jury decided that the existing level of service is acceptable.

Moreover, Stonebarger said only those jurors who receive fire district services should be weighing in on their effectiveness.

"I think it's (the residents') right to dictate what service level is adequate -- not someone who doesn't live in the district," he said.

The report's assertion that the tax will generate more than the district needs doesn't take into account the cost of replacing fire engines and remodeling or even rebuilding rundown stations like the one on Bethel Island, Stonebarger said.

Nor does it factor in the need to maintain a reserve that's at least 20 percent of the overall budget, he said.

Both Stonebarger and Romick also take issue with the grand jury's recommendation that the district should present the public with alternatives to the parcel tax.

The district initially proposed a $97 benefit assessment, although it subsequently nixed the idea because there were questions about whether the approach would hold up in court. The district also presented the public with several scenarios before adopting the current budget, one of which would have meant laying off about half its firefighters to avoid deficit spending.

But in the end, constituents indicated they want more than six fire stations and additional firefighters with advanced life support training, Stonebarger said.

East Contra Costa Fire District's board will meet Monday, when directors are expected to discuss the grand jury report.

The board has until March 12 to submit its written response.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141.


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