As far back as the district’s formation in 2002 and even before, residents have insisted that far East County is no longer a Bay Area backwater, and we deserve and want the same level of modern fire service provided other suburbanized areas and established as the industry standard by the National Fire Prevention Association: three firefighters per engine, one of whom is a paramedic.
The discussion has included literally dozens of public meetings over more than a decade. The need for standardized service has been confirmed by several reports from fire industry experts, county government analysis and even Local 1230, the union that represents ECCFPD firefighters. All have consistently reached the same conclusion: it is time for far East County to upgrade its fire service.
Equally clear to everyone involved was that reaching that level of service would require additional tax money. District revenue, locked in by 1978’s Proposition 13 at 7 cents on the property-tax dollar, is enough to pay for only the volunteer departments that heroically served the area for decades prior to the onrush of suburbia. Districts providing the modern fire service the ECCFPD has been asked to provide receive more than twice the revenue, 15 cents per tax dollar, to support those services.
Just as a new tax was accepted as inevitable by all involved, it was also agreed that voters would never approve a new tax if money were to go to Martinez. District residents must be in charge of the district, it was believed, rather than the Board of Supervisors, who ran the ECCFPD when it was formed.
The local control issue reared its head again in 2006, when the ECCFPD received a quote for contracted fire service from what was then the California Department of Forestry (CDF, now known as CalFire). The quote, based on the same three-firefighter, one-paramedic model already agreed to, showed CDF could provide the service for about $11.5 million, $470,000 less than the ECCFPD for the same job. The switch would also mean changing work schedules from 56-hour shifts to 72-hour shifts, and a change in guidelines for promotion, both of which Local 1230 opposed.
But even the cheaper (by 4 percent) CDF model would require millions of more dollars in revenue than the district had. Faced with the need for more money in order to consider either option, the need for local control once again became the top district priority. The CDF idea, along with the potentially divisive labor issue it contained, was shelved.
Locals finally got their long-sought local control in 2010. The board started with the idea of going to the people with a measure that would put in place the service model people wanted, and fix the district’s financial woes once and for all. The continuing recession and blooming deficit from retirement benefits faced by virtually every public agency made that a pipe dream. The district’s biggest expense problems were systemic, complex and long-term, and could not be eliminated in the short time left before the district reserves ran out and services were radically reduced.
With current post-employment benefits locked in, pension reform must take the form of a “second tier” of benefits for new hires. State law must be changed to make that possible, and a pair of bills to that end are currently working their way through Sacramento.
But even when the two-tier system is adopted, the debt generated by those already in the system will continue to grow until those on the lower tier become the majority of the employees. Even if retirement benefits were eliminated entirely for second-tier employees, years would pass before that would make a significant impact on the district’s bottom line.
Also years away are other ideas for solving the problem, including a complete overhaul of the county’s fire and emergency medical service system. The difficult process the ECCFPD underwent to get a nine-member board together on a plan would be many times harder if the solution were to include dozens of agencies and departments.
But if Measure S fails in June, the district will run out of money in July. Half the district’s stations will close, and half its firefighters will be laid off. Opponents decry those facts as scare tactics, but although they are scary, they are reality. The political realities also mean that it could be years before a different measure can be agreed to and passed.
Measure S is not perfect. It is not, and is not being sold as, a fix to all the district’s woes. It will enable the district to keep stations open while the permanent fix is hammered out and put in place. The need for benefit reforms has been acknowledged by Local 1230, and negotiations will continue on that in July.
The paramedic portion of the tax, only about $10 per year, is not union-inspired. It is an element of the service model repeatedly asked for by district residents. If S passes, it will ultimately provide six paramedics in the district, which currently relies on three paramedics in quick response vehicles (QRVs) from American Medical Response for advanced lifesaving services. The AMR services are provided as an adjunct to the company’s contract with the county, which expires in two years but would not be affected by a Measure S failure. It is not known how QRVs will be affected when the contract comes back up for negotiation.
As government waste and inefficiency impacts every portion of residents’ lives, and as residents go through financial difficulties of their own, it’s understandable that many would reject any request for more money for government services of any kind. The debate over Measure S has thus largely turned into one of taxpayers versus pensioners, with the major consequences of a failed measure taking a back seat to the need for reform.
Measure S, if passed, will cost district residents about $16 per month ($197 per parcel per year and a maximum 3-percent cost-of-living adjustment per year). Unless voters extend it, the tax will go away in 10 years, during which permanent, far-reaching solutions to the benefit problem must be instituted. There is no need to wait 10 years to put solutions in place, however, and in fact the district will be once again looking at red ink if adjustments are not made in half that time.
The question is how many firefighters will be on duty while the fixes are put in place. Measure S ensures the current model will stay in place, augmented by the paramedics the public has said it wants on fire engines. An additional station will be opened in year four, in a location to be determined by call volumes at the time.
If Measure S fails, the solutions must be worked out with half the personnel, half the stations, and response times that will jump from six or seven minutes to 14 or 15 minutes or more for half the district’s residents. Homeowners’ insurance for some residents in the Morgan Territory area quadrupled in the wake of the district’s closure of stations in 2010, and some policies were cancelled entirely, threatening the underlying mortgage. The same is likely to happen in other areas of the district should stations close, according to State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones.
We believe voters should pass Measure S in order to ensure critical fire service is maintained while long-term solutions that rely on state approval (the two-tier system) are put in place. It’s unfortunate that the district must ask for money when so many people are already hurting financially, but the reality is that the cost in human lives and property damage of subpar fire service stands to be far higher.
Nine firefighters and three fire engines are not enough to answer the 6,000 calls per year the ECCFPD gets from 105,000 district residents over 250 square miles, but that’s what will be left if Measure S fails. The public should keep the pressure on the district to institute desperately needed reforms, but in the meantime it should avoid drastic cuts in public safety and approve this tax. It’s what we need, as well as what we asked for. Vote Yes on Measure S.