One resident wondered if volunteer firefighters might help. Another asked if mobile units were considered. How about consolidating forces with another district and creating one giant firefighting team?
Suggestions, questions and comments flowed last week during town hall meetings in Pittsburg, Lafayette and Clayton as the public confronted the same issue that's bedeviled the Board of Supervisors: What's to be done about the financially distressed Contra Costa Fire District?
The three cities were selected because each lost a fire station this year to budget cuts necessitated by (1) reduced property tax revenue; (2) increasing retirement costs; and (3) the defeat of an annual $75-per-parcel tax. The district is spending money faster than it's coming in, and something needs to be done.
In a search for answers, the supervisors -- who also act as the fire board -- hired consultants Fitch & Associates, which presented preliminary statistical findings two weeks ago and last week invited public input.
Those findings show that emergency calls follow somewhat predictable patterns, both in when and where they occur, and that peak staffing during busy times and reduced staffing during lulls might better stretch resources.
The town hall turnouts were modest -- perhaps 250 people (including many firefighters) in three nights -- but there was no shortage of interaction. Senior consultant Jim Broman, who moderated, said they were as active as any of the 30 or so similar meetings he'd led previously.
Residents asked how long Fitch has been in business (32 years). Has it advised other districts this size? (Yes, but none with this much "financial distress," Broman said.) Might some fire engines be replaced by smaller vehicles? (Yes, that's being studied). Is fee-for-service fire protection an option? (Anything's possible, but do you want to go there?)
There were concerns voiced about station closures. There was interest in another parcel tax ballot issue (likely next year). But there were more puzzled looks than anything else, except when firefighters spoke. They were adamant that it's risky to cut personnel, that flex staffing won't work, and that incident charts don't convey the resources needed for a three-alarm fire. Their bottom line: Any remodel that cuts firefighters is unacceptable.
No one respects firefighters more than I do. I think voters were either shortsighted (you like station closures?) or ill-informed (a "no" vote didn't trim pension costs) when they rejected a parcel tax. But the reality is the current system is unsustainable. Money's lacking, and costs must be trimmed. That's why the Fitch study was commissioned and why staffing likely will be reduced.
When a Clayton attendee contended that rising property taxes and a possible federal grant will fix everything, County Administrator David Twa's brows twitched. When the speaker added that the county was playing games in not fully funding the fire district, Twa stomped to the podium.
"Let me see if I can make this exactly clear," he said, uncharacteristically agitated. "ConFire is going broke. There's no other way to put it. It's burning through its reserves to the tune of $12 million per year. If there is no change in the system, if there is no infusion of new dollars, this district will be bankrupt in 2016."
If you have suggestions, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
But make no mistake:Change is coming.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.