MARTINEZ -- Contra Costa County's largest fire district is canceling plans to shut down another fire station, citing the region's rebounding real estate values that have pumped more property taxes than expected into the struggling agency's bank account.
And if the county secures another federal grant in 2014, Contra Costa Fire Protection District officials say they will reopen next year two of the seven stations or units that have gone dark since 2011.
Despite the heartening news, the district and by extension, its 600,000 central county residents, remain on thin fiscal ice, top county Administrator David Twa told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
While property values and property tax revenues -- the district's largest source of funds -- have stabilized, the agency has staved off bankruptcy only through shuttering stations or taking units out of service, plus banking last year $7.9 million in one-time federal grants and other payments.
"The picture is brighter, but we still have a long way to go," Twa warned county supervisors.
Budget projections show the fire district is still spending $6 million to $10 million more annually than it expects to collect and will run out of money to run the roughly $100-million-a-year agency by 2017 unless it cuts costs or finds new money, Twa said.
The downward budget drivers are pensions and health care insurance costs, which are consuming a growing share of the district's revenues for a variety of reasons, Twa said.
Next fiscal year, the fire district's pension payments will increase $9.6 million. Put another way, for every $1 the district spends on salaries, it spends an additional $1.15 on worker pensions plus another 52 cents for health insurance and other benefits, Twa explained.
Retirement contributions have risen as a result of policy votes at the Contra Costa Employees Retirement Association, where its board adopted more realistic market earnings expectations. The board also split up the pension investment pool to eliminate subsidies of retirement system costs between member public agencies. Both actions resulted in higher annual pension rates for the agencies and their workers.
The bleak fire district budget has also decimated replacement fire truck and equipment funding, which Twa said cannot continue indefinitely. In addition, county supervisors and firefighters also expressed concern Tuesday over deteriorating fire protection service levels.
Since 2011, the district has been reduced from 30 firefighting units or stations to 23, and it shows in response times, Contra Costa Fire Chief Daryl Louder said.
It takes 23 minutes and 45 seconds to assemble a full firefighting force as defined by industry standards, more than twice the 10-minute response time for blazes recommended by the National Fire Protection District.
It also takes an average of 10 minutes and 26 seconds for the first fire unit to show up on the scene after a 911 call, a figure well in excess of the national 7-minute standard, and a more than "two minute deterioration in our response time since 2011," Louder said.
The county has hired an outside consultant to evaluate cheaper service models. A draft of that analysis is expected sometime in July.
Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773. Follow her at Twitter.com/lvorderbrueggen.