OAKLEY -- The negative results of a recent survey might upend East Contra Costa Fire District's plans to place a parcel tax measure on the June ballot, which would all but ensure station closures and layoffs.
Board members were dismayed Monday to learn that of those constituents likely to vote in June, only 54 percent are willing to pay more for fire protection and medical aid -- significantly fewer than the number the cash-strapped agency needs to maintain its current level of service.
United Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County's Local 1230 hired a polling firm to call 300 district residents last month to see if that the same level of anti-tax sentiment that sunk a previous attempt at a parcel tax still exists.
"We were hoping that the board would consider that and work on other options," Local 1230 President Vince Wells said. "If we put all this time into (the June parcel tax measure) and it fails, that's four more months wasted."
After reviewing the numbers, the consultant the district has hired to help inform the public about what's at stake agreed that the chances of a tax measure succeeding don't look good.
"It's risky to think we could get to two-thirds," said Charles Heath, district consultant, of the approval rating that a parcel tax must have to pass. "I do not think you can make up a 13 percent deficit between now and June."
Even after factoring in the margin of error, the most the district could hope for is 60 percent, he said.
Heath suggested that the board instead consider postponing the election until November when more people typically go to the polls or pursue another revenue-generating method that requires only a simple majority to pass.
But Fire Chief Hugh Henderson and some board directors acknowledged that to wait could create other problems.
Time is of the essence because the two-year federal grant that has kept the district afloat will expire in November. Unless the agency can come up with the money to offset that loss, officials say it probably will have to close two of its remaining five stations and lay off firefighters.
East Contra Costa Fire used to have eight stations but shuttered two in summer of 2010. The failure of a parcel tax in 2012 by a 56.2 percent margin forced the district to close three more before receiving a grant that enabled it to reopen two of them.
The district's precarious situation already is taking a toll, Henderson said.
"I'm concerned about the morale of staff," he said, noting that three of his 48 firefighters already have applied for jobs with other agencies.
Board President Joel Bryant noted that if the district held off an election until November, its proposal would be competing with other tax measures on the ballot. Multiple requests for money could prompt voters to reject all of them, he said.
But even if a parcel tax were to pass then, it wouldn't show up on people's property tax bills until August 2015 and it would be another four months before the district would start receiving any revenue, Henderson said.
Where the agency would find the approximately $4.4 million it needs during that intervening year is uncertain, he said.
"Any way you slice it, it's bad," Henderson said.
Board members voiced disappointment that the district's efforts to convey the urgency of its situation haven't garnered more support for the tax.
"I'm so frustrated I could spit!" said Bob Kenny, a board director.
The seven informational meetings that East Contra Costa Fire held last month to explain its position and the tax it was considering were sparsely attended. Moreover, 40 percent of those polled in the union's survey indicated that they were opposed to any tax.
"For whatever reason, this community is not getting behind the district. It's beyond frustrating," said Director Greg Cooper.
Board Vice President Ronald Johansen was incredulous that people would shoot down a tax that would cost them around $98 a year -- or about 26 cents per day.
"Twenty-six pennies a day and we're fighting tooth and nail. I'm just shocked by this," he said.
Diane Burgis, an Oakley City Councilwoman, agreed.
"Twenty-six cents is nothing when you need that service," she said.
Some thought that voters' opposition might be because firefighters are doing such a good job despite the district's limited means.
"My guys are busting their asses and that's why the public thinks they're getting an adequate level of service," Wells said.
Discovery Bay resident and retired firefighter David Piepho suggested that the board start closing stations right now and transfer those firefighters to the remaining ones, noting that the sight of empty firehouses might be what it takes for the district to get its point across to apathetic voters.
"Let the public feel what it's like," he said.
He didn't get any argument from Kevin Graves, a member of the town of Discovery Bay's board of directors.
"People aren't going to feel (the district's financial troubles) until it affects them personally," he said.
In the end, board members rallied around Director Greg Cooper's suggestion that the district conduct its own survey while continuing to prepare the paperwork required for a June election.
They unanimously agreed to have the consultant send a mailer with a response card attached to every one of the district's approximately 44,000 parcel owners asking how they'd vote on a tax.
Depending on the results, the board will decide at its March 3 meeting whether to put the matter on the ballot.
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.