By Dave Roberts
One of the biggest problems facing East County residents is the lack of adequate fire protection and emergency services. Most of the candidates for county supervisor representing District 3, which includes East County, favor raising taxes to beef up staffing in the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District. Only one candidate, Doug Hardcastle, has publicly opposed a fire tax hike.
ECCFPD voters have twice rejected fire tax hike measures in recent years. In 2012 a 10-year parcel tax hike, which required two-thirds approval to pass, failed to gain even a majority. In 2015 a benefit assessment, which needed a majority to pass, also failed with 53 percent of voters rejecting it. The district may place another tax hike measure on the November ballot.
In 2008 the fire district was able to staff six fire stations with 48 employees on a $10.8 million budget. But the current $12.1 million budget – a 12 percent increase in funding – only provides for 36 employees and staffing for three fire stations. This has resulted in longer response times, particularly in outlying areas, putting East County residents’ lives and property at risk.
The reason that a 12 percent budget increase in the past eight years has resulted in layoffs and station closures is that employee salary and benefit costs have risen even faster, 15 percent. Most significantly, retirement expenses have increased 64 percent from $2.2 million in 2008 to $3.6 million today.
Four of the six candidates seeking to replace Mary Piepho on the county board of supervisors – Steve Barr, Diane Burgis, Hardcastle and Odessa Lefrancois – discussed the fire district problem at a recent forum in Discovery Bay. The other two candidates – Wade Harper and Monica Wilson – failed to show due to family emergencies, according to Greg Robinson, publisher of the Brentwood Press, which sponsored the forum.
The candidates responded to this question: “Fire protection in East County is an ongoing concern. Despite the fact that there are three stations open with a fourth scheduled to open in July, the voters still turned down a recent tax initiative to support and reopen stations. What do you see as the solution to the ongoing funding for the district, and how can the supervisors help?”
Brentwood City Councilman Barr is the only candidate who has sat on the ECCFPD board, where he’s now in his fourth year.
“I know firsthand what the issues are out here,” he said. “The simple fact is there is not enough funding to fund more than three fire stations. It’s about $2.8 million per station, and the current funding from your property taxes is somewhere around $10 or $11 million. So as you can see, you’re not going to get anything more than three stations.”
The fire board has conducted a study, which determined that the 250-square-mile district actually needs nine fire stations to provide adequate protection, said Barr. He did not do the math at the forum, but nine stations at $2.8 million per station would total $25 million, more than double the district’s current budget.
“So I think we’re on the right track,” he said, adding that he’s “hopeful” about the next tax measure.
Barr did not mention Piepho by name, but he criticized the lack of leadership provided by the county supervisor on the issue.
“The supervisor of this county needs to step up and be the one leading, not the city manager of the city of Brentwood [who is chairing a task force],” he said. “I’m happy he’s doing it because he’s actually looking for solutions, like we all have. And I think that’s exactly what I would expect out of the county supervisors. Not leave it all to one of the cities, but actually leading and showing leadership and finding solutions.”
Oakley City Councilman Hardcastle said the solution is not another tax hike attempt.
“We’ve had enough studies,” he said. “People do not want to raise their taxes again. They tried it twice already. It’s ridiculous that they would even try it twice. We pay too much money. We just need to learn how to spend our money properly where it needs to be spent. I’m there to make sure that that money gets spent like that.
“I’ve been in business for 40-something years,” Hardcastle continued. “You don’t stay in business for 40-something years by spending money needlessly on stuff that it doesn’t need to be spent on. So my number one priority is going to be conservancy of the money to make sure that our dollars are spent like we want them to spend it.”
Hardcastle did not provide specifics on how he would like to reallocate the fire district’s budget, but said something needs to be done, including increasing salaries.
“Our fire stations out here are in horrible shape,” he said. “These guys are overworked; a lot of them are underpaid. I talked to one guy, he’s [making] $20 an hour being a fireman. That is ridiculous.”
One possibility is continuing the temporary funding provided to the fire district by the county and the cities of Brentwood and Oakley that has allowed the Knightsen station to be reopened through June 2017.
“My number one priority in this whole thing is having our families be safe,” said Hardcastle. “We can get money from our budgets at the city.”
Lefrancois, who is a past president of the East County NAACP, also favors other government agencies pitching in to help the fire district.
“As a supervisor I’d like to bring all of the concerned parties to the table to try to figure this out,” she said. “This needs to be figured out not just by the county board of supervisor[s], but also by the county board of education and also special district[s] who also have funding on safety that goes into their budget[s].”
Lefrancois also agrees with Barr that another tax hike attempt should be studied. “Maybe we need to figure out from the voters what type of tax, if there is a parcel tax, what would they be willing to pay, what would they be willing to do,” she said. “I think this is a very complex issue, and it needs more than just one individual at the table making that decision.”
East Bay Regional Park District board member Burgis also wants to look at the possibility of another tax hike measure. “We need to find more revenue,” she said. “That can be different tools. That can be property tax, it can be reallocation, it can be consolidation. It can be a whole combination of things. But it has to be legal. And it has to be something that we make urgent.”
She did not mention Barr by name, but criticized the fire board’s efforts thus far.
“The problem has been the leadership on this fire board hasn’t done the job,” said Burgis. “So we need to figure out what hasn’t worked and stop that and move forward. We need to have a more accountable fire protection board. I think that having an elected board that is responsible for the district is a good step.”
Burgis agreed with Barr that there needs to be county leadership on the issue.
“As a supervisor we are one part of three parts: Oakley, Brentwood and the county,” she said. “And as supervisor I would be that leader. I would bring those people together. That’s the reputation I have is bringing people together that have different opinions, politics and agendas and making sure that we do what we need to do. … It’s a problem that we need to deal with.”
On other issues, the candidates mostly agreed that:
- The proposed Delta tunnels project should be opposed because it would degrade water quality.
- Development of the Byron Airport could be an economic boon to East County.
- There is a need to attract more businesses to East County to provide local jobs.
- Local farmland needs to be protected.
- Crime, including shootings on Highway 4, needs to be reduced.
The election is June 7th. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, then the top two will face off in the general election in November.