The East Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (District) received a unfavorable report from the Contra Costa County Grand Jury last Friday in regards to the proposed $197 Parcel Tax. Upon reading the report, I would urge citizens in East County to take this report with a grain of salt and then proceed to use it in place of toilet paper.
I would urge the board starting with its President Kevin Romick, to immediatly lead by example and take a very hard line stand against this report and blast the heck out it using strong rhetoric—that is the only way people will realize the disaster of this politically motivated report. The response needs to dissect each of the Grand Jury’s findings and recommendations and show how and why it’s wrong.
After all, the Board has worked for a very long time on this solution and a single report essentially says this board is a bunch of morons and didn’t do its job—which is obviously untrue. If the Board cannot reverse the damage from this report, there is no point to even more forward with the parcel tax or serve on the board for that matter.
The 5-page report can be summed up in three simple talking points:
- The Board did not do its due diligence in finding alternative revenue sources
- Contract more with CAL FIRE
- The status quo of current service is okay for East County
By proof of this report, the Grand Jury shows its lack of experience and that it simply does not have the capacity to understand how East County works, the history of the District, what precautions the district has already taken in terms of its budget and services, while failing to take into consideration district needs required to serve its citizens.
The report is full of errors, multiple contradictions, and misstatements which appear to be politically driven by anti-tax folks who have no idea what our firefighters need to be able to provide services. This is not something where left vs. right politics should interfere, it is up to the voters to decide what they want—not let a hit piece like this be published with false information.
A perfect example is that they consider the current service provided as “adequate” when the district has already shut down two stations and laid off staff—that defies any logic or common sense right off the bat as the district is already understaffed. If services provided are adequate and sustainable, why would the District need to cut its staff down to 24 from 48 firefighters? A little common sense goes a long way,
The Grand Jury claims the District is asking for a tax that will generate revenue beyond what is needed for the expanded operating structure. This is simply not true, the District is factoring in services needed to accommodate growth in East County while the Grand Jury is apparently looking at current service levels—these are completely different perspectives.
As a result to the shutdowns and layoffs, the District appears to have excess money which it really doesn’t have. The District want to re-open and re-staff which is what a portion of the Parcel Tax will be used for. In terms of these so called “reserves” the Grand Jury fails to recognize is that the District has to build up its reserve and invest in new equipment, fire stations that are broken down and even purchase gas—that comes from a reserve fund, not a money tree.
To someone not paying attention or doesn’t know any better, they will cast a “no” vote without a second thought based off this report. The truth is, under the current staffing and service levels, residence of East County are lucky we have not had more problems than we have had.
The report simply makes a stupid conclusion that service is adequate because no one has died when in reality, when there are multiple accidents/calls at a single time, a disaster or other god forsaken incident that is when people will feel the effects of the current staffing levels. Put bluntly, if there are any other layoffs or shutdowns of stations, East County citizens had better grab a bible and pray because there will be longer response times in an emergency—some calls will no longer even be answered.
Finally, before I get into the Grand Jury’s recommendations, they hammer the District for increased services that include paramedics in place of ambulance companies. Do people realize Fire is typically the first response on sight? If there is a paramedic program in place, emergency help can begin right away rather than wait on an ambulance company to show up. Under the current structure, fire cannot provide immediate medical attention.
Let’s just go down the Recommendations by the Grand Jury shall we?
The Board should consider other available operating structure alternatives before deciding on a ballot measure.
Prop 13 ring a bell? The District is locked into its revenue based on how it was set up in 2002. There are no real world solutions for revenue alternatives because if there were, the District would not be going to a parcel tax and would have acted over three years ago.
Other options for generating revenue have been looked at which include charging for accidents for people who live out of district, drunken driving accidents were all looked at by the board. Unfortunately, it was determined to be more hassle than they were worth as very little revenue generated versus staff time available to do billing and tracking which was the correct decision.
The Board should consider whether the current operating structure provides adequate service levels, and should be included as an alternative.
The current levels are adequate, but not sustainable as funds are running dry. With the growth East County is having and expected to have, service levels will soon be inadequate. In the event that the parcel tax fails, the District reports that they will be forced to close additional stations and reduce their firefighter staffing from 48 to 24. Hardly, this is an adequate staffing level to cover 250 square miles.
The truth is the current 48 firefighters we have now are not enough! East County residences have been lucky there have not been multiple incidents are one time, engines haven’t broken down, or has been a major disaster.
The Board should consider outsourcing all fire suppression services to CAL FIRE for the current operating structure as a potential cost saving measure.
The Board did this at the very beginning of the process in 2006. This is actually not a cost saving move and would be more expensive while providing less services as CAL FIRE is not dedicated to East County. CAL FIRE is a nice backup to have, but that is about it. The big problem with this recommendation is it would transfer control from the District to the State—and we all know how that would work out for East County.
By the way, does the Grand Jury even realize Governor Jerry Brown has cut CAL FIRE funds? Based on Browns cuts, now CAL Fire will have become more expensive because they have to recoup their losses.
All possible cost containment opportunities, including resolution of the union agreement, should be considered in the Board’s evaluation of alternatives for providing service.
The Board has been looking at its costs for many years now which incudes’ pay freezes, hire freezes, layoffs and cut in services such as closing stations. Firefighters have not had a pay raise in over four-years—which does not even include a cost of living increase. It should be noted that our district pays its firefighters nearly 40% less in salary than neighboring districts while they pay a higher share for medical and retirement.
This recommendation is way off base as they are already operating at minimum levels allowed. The East County Fire Fighters are already the lowest paid in the region by a large percentage and the suggestion that their contracts be renegotiated again is comical—it should also be noted that the negotiations are currently ongoing and deemed confidential.
If this was me, and I had not had a raise in 4-years, I’d be looking at other job openings because my motivation would be very low. Not to mention, the district is then used as a stepping stone to other Districts while training costs would soar due to consistent turnover.
For all operating structures considered, the Board should conduct the analyses required to determine whether the additional revenue being requested from the taxpayers is the minimum reasonably required to fund and sustain each alternative.
This is actually a pretty stupid statement because I highly doubt the Board picked $197 out of its rear end. It tried the $187 rate and realized at this rate its funding would not be solvent after year 3. The District looked at the SCI Recommendation at $98 per parcel as a Benefit District to try to remain status quo but it was determined it would be in the red within two years. That is how $197 per parcel became the number.
The other part of the report that irks me is the mention that there is no “Sunset Clause” which means if revenue goes up based on property taxes, the parcel tax goes down. This was a premature statement by the Grand Jury and reckless. From what I’ve been told, there will be a Sunset Clause discussed with the ballot language; however, the whole process has not been vetted out yet.
The Board should inform and educate the residents of the District regarding alternative operating structures and associated costs, and solicit their input.
This recommendation is a head scratcher because the Fire Board has scheduled many outreach events prior to the final wording of the ballot language to discuss the parcel tax. Board members have been available at many community events in order to answer any questions. There have also been many ad-hoc committee meetings. The Grand Jury is way off base with this statement.
After receiving public input, the Board should decide on the most appropriate operating structure and propose an appropriate parcel tax initiative.
The Board has been gathering public input for over a year which includes outreach events, community events, ad-hoc committees and used local news media to explain the operating structure and purpose of the current parcel tax. The suggestion that the Board should re-do the process will ultimately cost lives by postponing this effort any longer.
The Board should consider developing a viable service alternative to be implemented in the event of the parcel tax initiative failing.
The Grand Jury is simply upset because the District provided just one option that prevents station closures and layoffs. What this Grand Jury fails to understand, partly because they do not understand the special circumstance about the District, is no service alternative because there will be no money. The alternative is simple; station shut downs while firefighter staffing drops from 48 to 24.
Overall, the report is damaging to the District because very little background has been provided in the report to back up the research and figures the District likely included during their interviews. The cheap shots throughout the report signal a “vote no” political approach.
If you have never looked at who qualifies for the Grand Jury, check it out because it’s a simple application process—no experience in what one is investigating or qualifications are needed. According to the Contra Costa County website, Penal Code 893 states that prospective grand jurors must possess the following qualifications:
- Be a citizen of the United States, age 18 or older and a resident of the county for at least one year immediately before being sworn.
- Be in possession of natural facilities and ordinary intelligence and of sound judgment and fair character.
- Possess sufficient knowledge of the English language.
No person is eligible to act as a grand juror if any of the following apply:
- The person is serving in an elective office or as a trial juror in any court in California.
- The person has been discharged as a grand juror in any court in California within one year.
- The person has been convicted of malfeasance in office or any felony or other high crime.
The District only has one shot at this parcel tax and will not have a second chance at it. For whatever reason, the Grand Jury, out of everything out there to look at, chose the District to investigate.
The problem with reports like this one, with an obvious agenda behind it, is that there are no consequences to the Grand Jury that put out garbage like this. Instead, those they report on are left cleaning up the mess created reckless behavior.
The real consequences will come to East County residence that may pay with their life based off a false investigation Report like this one. We should support our firefighters and give them the tools to help us even at a little extra cost.
Here is a copy of the Grand Jury Report—nice title huh?