The East Contra Costa Fire District is not yet on life support, but the next of kin has been notified, and a priest is standing by with a Bible.

The same budget woes that forced the agency to shrink from eight fire stations to five soon may mean two more closures. That would leave three units -- nine on-duty firefighters -- to safeguard more than 100,000 residents spanning 250 square miles, from Oakley to Brentwood to Discovery Bay.

A structure fire usually requires at least 15 firefighters, so this isn't good.

Contraction was forestalled two years ago, thanks to a federal SAFER grant, but when that expires in November, so do any chances of balancing the budget -- unless a new funding source is uncovered.

"I'm concerned that our citizens don't fully understand the dilemma this district faces in providing services," board member Ronald Johansen said.

Fire district detractors often blame hefty salaries and benefits for its budget problems -- the assertion has some merit -- but East Contra Costa's issues are more complicated. (Its firefighters, by the way, are paid substantially less than those in neighboring districts.)

A structural funding problem plagues East Contra Costa, which was classified as a rural area when Proposition 13 passed in 1978 and retained that classification even as cities incorporated and populations swelled. Rural fire districts get a smaller cut of taxes.


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"For the most part, our district collects about 6 cents of every property tax dollar, while suburban and urban areas collect 12 or 13 cents," said Brentwood Councilman Erick Stonebarger. "We all pay property taxes; it just gets allocated differently."

That's why fire board members find themselves pondering the never-popular option of a parcel tax -- targeted at about $100 per year for five years. The last time they went to the voters, in 2012, only 43.6 percent favored a measure that requires a two-thirds majority. A recent survey found support remains way short of the two-thirds mark.

Fire board President Joel Bryant, who's also Brentwood's vice mayor, said he shares residents' dislike of taxes, but the cost pales alongside the risk of substandard protection and response times.

"I've been accused of using scare tactics to get this passed," he said, "but the reality is this is very scary. When you call 911, you should have a reasonable expectation that an emergency response vehicle can get there in time."

Oakley Councilwoman Diane Burgis surely agrees. She remembers when her 3-year-old son, Sam, suffered an allergic reaction that caused him such difficulty breathing it appeared a tracheotomy might be needed.

"The firefighters were at my house in two minutes," she said. "They treated him and got him through it. I fear someone might have a situation like that in the future, and responders won't get there in time."

East Contra Costa officials note that when the district was evaluated by outside consultants a decade ago, they recommended it staff 10 fire stations. The number now is half that and headed lower.

"I know San Francisco is different because of its density," Johansen said, "but it has 49 stations for 49 square miles. We're looking at three stations for 250 square miles."

A parcel tax has yet to be formally proposed. Board members wonder if they can generate support.

"Nobody cares about this until it affects them," Oakley Mayor Randy Pope said. "It's never a big deal until something's burning."

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.