By Bryan Scott
A great political victory was won on November 8. The electorate should be congratulated.
No, not President-Elect Trump’s surprising victory. I’m referring to the roughly 60% of the voters in Brentwood who voted “No” on Proposition Z, the flawed utility user tax put forth by Brentwood’s City Council. A similar measure in Oakley received an even greater level of rejection.
Voters in Brentwood and Oakley rejected the tax that was conceived by a self-appointed shadow government “Task Force” comprised of two City Managers, three union leaders, three fire chiefs and the chiefs of staff of two County Supervisors. This group had no public membership, posted no public agendas or minutes, and refused requests for taxpayer participation.
These government fat cats, most of whom are drawing salaries and benefits costing taxpayers in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars, felt entitled to reach into the pockets of taxpayers for another general tax. They used the structural funding problem of the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) as the justification, even though there was no requirement that the tax money collected would be used for this purpose.
Make no mistake- the ECCFPD desperately needs more money.It receives the lowest property tax allocation percentage of all fire districts in the county, 7%, which is roughly five percent below the county’s average. San Ramon Valley FPD gets 15%, Moraga-Orinda FPD collects 21%, and Contra Costa FPD receives 14% of ad valorem property taxes.
ECCFPD does an outstanding job with the funding it gets. Itis probably the most efficient fire district in California, attempting to meet the needs of 110,000 residents spread over 249-square miles. But a fire district with so little funding cannot provide an adequate level of services. As a result, people are dying, according fire department officers, and homes are burning down.
Last year property taxes collected within the ECCFPD territory exceeded $153 million. By state law property taxes are regulated, and their growth is limited. This is good.
What is bad is that local elected leaders have not gotten on board the effort to adjust where this $153 million goes. Elected leaders have yet to recognize the injustice of the situation, and openly support reallocation of these public funds in favor of the fire district.
As with all property taxes, this dollar figure will go up as property values increase. Gus Kramer, Contra Costa County Assessor, sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors on June 30, 2016, telling them that property values within the county had reached a record high of $181.7 billion. Property values in ECCFPD’s territory increased significantly, with values in Brentwood and Oakley increasing by over 8%.
ECCFPD needs a larger share of these funds. It is as simple as that. The hard part is to get government entities to give up, forever, part of the property tax revenue growth that is anticipated to come their way.
Residents of East Contra Costa pay the same property tax rate as the residents of Central Contra Costa, and all fire districts are primarily funded with property taxes. The benefits of California tax laws should apply equally to all citizens.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution includes the sentence “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
By providing the ECCFPD with only 7% of the ad valorem 1% property tax funding, and allowing emergency response times that are nearly twice as long as in other parts of the county, East County residents are suffering from reduced “privileges or immunities”and unequal “protection of the laws.”
When the allocation rate was set nearly four decades ago there were four volunteer fire districts covering what is now the jurisdiction of ECCFPD, and about 7% of the property taxes collected were spent on fire services. Today there are over 110,000 residents and the district has unionized firefighters, yet the allocation rate is the same.
The government, at the county and state levels, treatsEast County residents differently than residents of other parts of Contra Costa County. This is morally wrong.
Bryan Scott is a Brentwood resident and Co-Chair of East County Voters for Equal Protection, a non-partisan citizens action committee whose aim is to improve funding for the ECCFPD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or925-418-4428. The group’s Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/EastCountyVoters/.