By Bryan Scott
Are the children of Brentwood and Oakley worth one-fifth what the children of Orinda and Moraga are worth?
Are the retirees of Brentwood’s Summerset and Trilogy developments worth one-fourth as much as the retirees in Danville and San Ramon?
The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) receives $94 in funding per-resident to protect lives and property in East Contra Costa County, while the two fire districts protecting the just mentioned central county areas are funded at $370 and $449, per-resident.
Let that sink in for a moment: $94 versus $370 and $449 per-resident.
The San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District receives $370 of per-resident funding to protect the lives and property of residents in its community, and the Moraga-Orinda Fire Protection District receives $449 per resident to do the same thing.
This is according to Page 32 of the EMS/Fire Services Municipal Services Review of August 3, 2016, prepared for the Contra Costa County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO).
Is this unequal funding of an essential government service fair? Is it legal?
After all, residents of East Contra Costa pay the same property tax rate as those residents of Central Contra Costa, and all fire districts are primarily funded with property taxes. Should not the benefits of the California tax laws apply equally to all citizens?
The Fourteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution includes this 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 such a low level of funding, are we in East County suffering from reduced “privileges or immunities?” Of course, we are.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that:
“When a state distributes benefits unequally, the distinctions it makes are subject to scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause, and generally a law will survive that scrutiny if the distinctions rationally further a legitimate state purpose.” Zobel v. Williams, 457 U.S. 55 (1982)
The California Supreme Court has stated that funding of another government benefit, education, based on geography violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
“We are called upon to determine whether the California public school financing system, with its substantial dependence on local property taxes and resultant wide disparities in school revenue, violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We have determined that this funding scheme invidiously discriminates against the poor because it makes the quality of a child’s education a function of the wealth of his parents and neighbors. Recognizing as we must that the right to an education in our public schools is a fundamental interest which cannot be conditioned on wealth, we can discern no compelling state purpose necessitating the present method of financing. We have concluded, therefore, that such a system cannot withstand constitutional challenge and must fall before the equal protection clause,” the California Supreme Court said. Serrano v. Priest, 487 P.2d 1241 (Cal. 1971)
The California Health & Safety Code, Section 13801, reads in part:
“The Legislature finds and declares that the local provision of fire protection services, rescue services, emergency medical services, hazardous material emergency response services, ambulance services, and other services relating to the protection of lives and property is critical to the public peace, health, and safety of the state. “
Not only is this difference of funding unfair, it is illegal. Action needs to be taken to resolve this “public safety emergency,” to use Assembly Member Jim Frazier’s description of the situation.
Lives and property are unfairly at risk, unlawfully at risk.
Brentwood resident Bryan Scott is Co-Chair of East County Voters for Equal Protection, a non-partisan citizen’s action committee striving 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/.