OAKLEY -- In an ongoing effort to consider every possible way of drumming up more money, directors of the East Contra Costa Fire District will be exploring the idea of a benefit assessment.
The board agreed Monday to pursue this alternative to a parcel tax, and the seven members present voted unanimously to hire consultants to come up with the proposed levy on property owners.
Directors Kevin Bouillon and Greg Cooper were absent.
The district will pay financial services firm NBS $115,000 to do the research involved in establishing an assessment, the revenue from which would go toward firefighters' salaries as well as buying and maintaining firefighting equipment.
The premise of a special assessment is that although it funds services that benefit the public at large, those who own property reap additional "special" benefits in varying degrees.
Keeping East Contra Costa Fire's remaining five stations open benefits the owner of a single-family home more than someone who has a vacant lot, for example. Similarly, the owner of a strip mall that's on fire stands to lose more -- and requires more of the fire district's manpower and equipment -- than the individual with one home.
As such, NBS will devise a formula to calculate each property owner's annual share of cost for fire protection; the district then would hold an election and the assessment would need a majority vote to pass. Only those with real estate holdings would participate.
Even if the assessment passed, East Contra Costa Fire still would have to find money to tide it over until December 2015, when it would start collecting revenue. Exactly how the board would do that hasn't yet been decided, Chief Hugh Henderson said following the meeting.
Discovery Bay resident Bob Mankin is all for a benefit assessment, but he said that using the money to maintain the status quo is not adequate -- the fire district needs the eight stations it used to have.
"You're not really fixing (the problem)," he said, "You're duct taping (the agency) together."
Property tax revenues that weren't keeping pace with the cost of serving an expanding customer base forced East Contra Costa Fire to cut back to six stations in summer 2010; the failure of a parcel tax measure in 2012 led to the closure of three more. A federal grant since has made it possible to reopen two stations, but those funds will run out in November.
Director Stephen Smith voiced frustration with Mankin's urging that the board find a long-term funding solution.
Of course the district needs more than five stations, he said, but the immediate concern is finding a way to continue financing those it already has.
Board Vice President Ronald Johansen agreed.
"The long-term fix is not within reach now, and it might not be for a few years," he said.
Reach Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.