By Bryan Scott
People are dying in East County, homes are burning down, and residents are paying dramatically escalating insurance premiums, often increasing by over 200%.
The fire district serving the needs of over 110,000 people in two cities, half a dozen unincorporated communities, and spread over 249-square miles of Contra Costa County is critically underfunded.
The state of California set-up the funding for these services in the 1980’s, when all that was needed were several groups of volunteer firefighters to serve 8,000 people in a couple of East Contra Costa County farming communities. The need for fire and emergency medical services in East County has changed dramatically in the last 40 years, and the population has grown to over 110,000 residents.
All fire districts in California are funded with property tax revenues. A permanent solution to this funding problem requires reallocating some of these property tax funds from the current recipients to the fire district.
Contra Costa County Fire Protection District receives ~14% of the property tax revenue. The fire district covering the San Ramon Valley gets ~15%, and the fire district serving the Moraga-Orinda area is funded at~ 21%.
The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) gets less than 8%.
A survey conducted last Fall found that on a per-person basis ECCFPD gets about $106 each year, compared to $349 per-person for San Ramon Valley and $366 for Moraga-Orinda fire districts. This unequal funding is to provide essentially the same services to county residents who pay the same property tax rate.
Gus Vina is the City Manager of Brentwood, and Bryan Montgomery is the City Manager of Oakley. Combined, these two these public administrators are responsible for managing the safety of 100,000 residents. They have a moral, if not legal, duty to ensure the safety of their employers, the taxpaying residents of their respective cities.
Both City Managers should be applauded for their efforts in dealing with this crisis.
In 2015 a government-employee task force was formed, under the leadership of Vina, and temporary funding was obtained from the two cities and the County. This funding kept a fourth fire station open for 18 months.
In 2016 both City Managers helped get a Utility User Tax (UUT) on the ballot in their respective cities, even though public opinion polling said the measures would gather only 40% support, at best, with the voters. While a general tax measure of this type requires only a simple majority to pass, Brentwood’s vote came in at 39% in favor. Support for the UUT in Oakley was less.
Both Brentwood and Oakley are now talking about another temporary funding contribution, along with the County.
These temporary band-aide funding measures, do not address the fundamental problem, the structural property tax funding deficiency.
It is too bad neither one of these municipal managers has gotten behind the permanent solution to the funding crisis, reallocating property tax funds. But perhaps it is understandable.
The challenge here is that the money for a permanent fix comes from the current recipients of property tax funding. These recipients include the cities both Vina and Montgomery are paid to run, Brentwood and Oakley.
And while they have endorsed short-term financial contributions, they have not worked towards the obvious and final fix to the funding crisis, the reallocation of property tax funds.
So, East County residents will continue to die, homes will continue to burn down, and insurance premiums will continue to go up.
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, or 925-418-4428. The group’s Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/EastCountyVoters/.