Saturday, May 9, 2009

Plan for East County fire board fails

MARTINEZ — Supervisors' plan to create an East Contra Costa County fire board to solve financial and staffing issues has failed, a fire chief said Tuesday.

The cities of Oakley and Brentwood have balked at joining the alliance, saying the economics and timing won't work, according to acting East Contra Costa Fire Protection District chief Hugh Henderson.

"We don't want to force government on cities that don't want it," said Supervisor Mary Piepho, of Discovery Bay, whose district includes that department.

The fire district faces significant issues: plummeting property tax revenue, a smaller piece of the property tax revenue pie than other fire districts, only two firefighters per engine, lower paid firefighters and a challenging geographical region to cover. Although many believe the Contra Costa Fire Protection District should take over the East County services, significant funding shortfalls present major obstacles.

"The only hurdle with that is the dollars and cents," said Piepho, who supports an East County fire and Confire merger.

Labor issues would need to be resolved to join the two districts. East County would need to meet minimum staffing requirements (three firefighters and engine) and increase salaries to join Confire, Henderson told the board. However, such funding does not exist.

And that disproportionate funding has created political fallout.

"The city of Brentwood is providing over 50 percent of Advertisementthe revenue and subsidizing the unincorporated areas of east county," said Donna Landeros, Brentwood city manager. "It's hard to go to our voters and say we want them to pay more for a higher level of service "... when they are subsidizing the level of service elsewhere."

She also realizes that Confire has similar concerns about taking in East County fire.

"Confire doesn't want to subsidize East County and we don't want to subsidize the unincorporated areas," she said.

Piepho said she's pinning her hopes on the Local Agency Formation Commission and its ongoing countywide fire service review. She hopes that agency, which can alter fire coverage areas, pushes Confire to find a way to bring in East County fire.

"If LAFCO does its job I'm very optimistic we can make significant changes countywide to better serve the community with fire suppression," the supervisor said.

At the root of East County fire's problems is property taxes.

This fiscal year, the district saw a 7 percent drop in assessed values, totaling $1.3 million in lost revenue. The district expects to lose an additional 8 percent in assessed value next year, cutting another $1.7 million in property tax revenue. Property tax revenue represents 90 percent of the district's funding.

Making matters worse for the district is its small percentage of the property tax pie. For every $1 in property tax from East County residents the district receives 6 to 7 cents. The average tax rate in Confire is about 13 to 15 cents on the dollar.

"How do we provide 21st century fire and public safety in an economic model designed in 1978," asked Piepho, referring to that year's voter-approved Proposition 13 property tax limitation. The state law froze East County's portion of property tax revenues more than three decades ago when the region was largely rural and served by volunteer firefighters.

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