OAKLEY -- The East Contra Costa Fire District's board approved a $12.3 million preliminary budget Monday that assumes the agency will close two stations at the end of November.
Although the size of the 2014-15 spending plan is virtually the same as this year's, projected expenses aren't: The biggest single increase the district must handle is a 40 percent hike in its contributions to firefighters' pensions, which amounts to an additional $1.2 million.
The increase is due in part to a drop in the rate of return on district investments.
The district must adopt a final budget by Oct. 1.
"We are down to the bone," said Director Stephen Smith, disputing online comments he's seen that assert the district must have some expenses it could cut.
With 96 percent of its revenue currently coming from property taxes, East Contra Costa Fire suffered a blow with the collapse of the housing market seven years ago.
The district was forced to shutter stations and is still in a precarious position.
Unless more revenue is forthcoming, residents of far East County might lose one of their remaining five stations even before a federal grant that has been keeping a couple of them open expires in November.
The uncertainty of their jobs has prompted four firefighters to leave the district, and four others have received conditional offers of employment, fire Chief Hugh Henderson told the board.
Nine firefighters are needed to man each station, so if any more resign, the board will have to decide whether it can afford to continue paying firefighters overtime to compensate for the empty slots, as well as whether it should expose them to the added risk of injury that comes with working longer hours, Henderson said.
The option would be to close one of the two stations this summer instead of waiting until late fall, he said.
The board hasn't yet announced which sites it would close, although the last time it took this step, it targeted Knightsen's station and one in Brentwood.
The departures cost the district in another way as well: It forfeits part of its federal grant for each firefighter who leaves.
Director Greg Cooper urged the board to discuss the matter sooner rather than later, prompting Henderson to agree to put it on the agenda for next month's meeting.
In a related matter, directors also agreed to have consultants solicit property owners' opinions on several aspects of a benefit assessment that the district is considering presenting to voters in November.
East Contra Costa Fire already has hired a consulting firm to show how some properties stand to benefit more from fire services than others, an analysis that must be done before this type of a levy can be placed on the ballot.
Now that company will ask those who would have to pay the assessment -- land owners -- how long they think the assessment should be in effect, whether it should be a flat dollar amount or increase each year, and whether an independent committee should oversee the expenditures of that money.
The board overruled Directors Cheryl Morgan and Joe Young, both of whom thought the district shouldn't spend the approximately $20,000 it will cost to poll these voters when it already has a good sense of what the answers will be.
"I don't see the value of this survey," Young said.
Although the $115,000 the district already has paid the consultants could be used to cover this extra expense, the district then would need to come up with more money for the two additional mass mailings it's planning to explain to voters what's at stake.
Reach Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.