Two years ago, voters soundly rejected a $197 per parcel property tax to fund fire service in far East Contra Costa. Now, fire district directors are proposing a more modest assessment.

Ballots, due back by Oct. 6, have just been mailed out to property owners in Brentwood, Oakley, Bethel Island, Discovery Bay, Knightsen, Byron, Marsh Creek and Morgan Territory.

We urge them to approve this proposal to avoid fiscal calamity or inadequate fire protection. Nevertheless, we have serious concerns.

The district once operated eight fire stations. It's down to five, two of which will shut when federal grant money runs out in November. The goal of the new assessment is to keep those two stations open.

We opposed the $197 tax proposed two years ago. It would have escalated to as much as $257 during its 10-year life. That plan demonstrated no fiscal discipline and failed to address out-of-control retirement costs. The new proposed assessment would be cheaper, less than $113 a year for most houses; would have a shorter duration of five years; and would not escalate during that time.

Since the last proposal, firefighters have agreed to contribute more toward their pensions. But, even with that and the new tax, the district will face huge financial hurdles and staggering debt from years of underfunding employee pension and retiree health plans. It's so bad that annual payments to those two retirement programs are now more than twice the amount for base salaries.


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Yet, the payments to retiree health still do not cover the minimum payment, meaning the fire district continues to go deeper in debt. If voters approve the new assessment, the district should immediately start making full minimum payments.

Rather than once again seeking a parcel tax, which requires two-thirds voter approval, district directors are asking approval for an assessment district levy, which requires simple majority backing.

In an assessment district election, each property owner's vote is weighted by the size of the charge on that parcel. It's a process established under Proposition 218, a statewide initiative voters approved in 1996.

But Prop. 218 limits such assessments to the cost of "special benefits" each property owner would receive. It cannot include "general benefits" enjoyed by the public at large.

The fire district has tried to distinguish which parts of fire service are unique to property owners, and which benefit all of the public. This is a silly distinction; fire service is a general benefit to all.

In other words, if approved by voters, the assessment will be vulnerable to a legal challenge with uncertain outcome.