OAKLEY -- The clock is ticking down on fire district officials here who are trying to decide the features of a parcel tax they'll start pitching to voters in earnest next month.

During a 3½-hour discussion Monday, directors of the East Contra Costa Fire District debated how long the as-yet undefined tax should last, whether that figure should reflect raises for firefighters and be adjusted annually to offset inflation, and if any residents should be exempt.

The financially troubled district will hold seven public presentations in January -- one in each of the communities it serves -- to explain what's at stake: If it can't drum up additional revenue by the time a federal grant expires in November 2014, the agency predicts that it will be forced to close two of its five fire stations.

Last year's resounding defeat of a similar tax measure was uppermost on directors' minds as they debated how best to convey the urgency of the need to residents, many of whom board President Joel Bryant said had no idea that the agency was even in trouble when he talked to them during his campaign for Measure S.

Following the ballot measure's failure, East Contra Costa Fire closed three stations and laid off 15 firefighters. The district received a reprieve a few months later in the form of a two-year, $7.8 million grant.

This time around directors acknowledged that the district must be more aggressive in its public outreach; it's not enough to hold informational meetings and hope that voters will come -- they also will be taking their message to specific groups such as service clubs, scouting groups and parent-teacher associations.

"They'll pay if they know," said Vince Wells, union president of United Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County, Local 1230.

As for the features of the proposed parcel tax, directors agreed that it should remain in effect from five to seven years. Those on the district's finance committee now will crunch numbers to determine whether it makes sense to have cost-of-living increases built into the tax.

Check back for updates.

Reach Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.