With the East Bay's most populous fire district sliding toward bankruptcy, much hope had been pinned on an outside consultant's recommendations for structural change.
The Contra Costa grand jury had called on the district to think "outside the box." This paper's editorial page had similarly chastised the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District's failure to look for creative options to address soaring pension costs in the face of recession-driven declines in property tax revenues.
Now, the much-awaited $185,000 report from Fitch & Associates has arrived. Those who had anticipated a major examination of creative alternatives will be greatly disappointed. It's simply not there.
John Gioia, who along with his fellow county supervisors also serve as the directors of the fire district, is frustrated that the report didn't fulfill the board's direction. "The message was find solutions that were short- and long-term," he says. "Clearly the report is inadequate in identifying meaningful solutions."
It turns out that the Fitch consulting team never saw that as their mission. "That really wasn't in the scope of what we were asked to do," says Jim Broman, a former fire chief from Lacey, Wash., who was one of the authors of the report. He says they could have done more but Contra Costa officials were just looking for short-term solutions to keep the district afloat.
Whatever the root of this misunderstanding, the bottom line is that the report provides no recommendations for savings. "Nothing in there really changes anything financially for us," says Jeff Carman, the new chief of the fire district.
To be sure, the consultants did a good job of defining the problems the district faces. And their data crunching showed that, contrary to the claims of the district's former fire chief, last year's reduction from 28 to 24 engine companies had only negligible effect on response times for fires and medical emergencies.
But their recommendations were merely tweaks that provide little cost savings. This report won't help the district reduce its structural deficit in any meaningful way to avoid running out of money by about 2016.
With better construction of homes that makes them less combustible, fire districts across the nation have morphed from fighting blazes to providing emergency medical service. In 2012, 78 percent of the Contra Costa district calls, and 56 percent of firefighters' time away from the stations, were for medical service.
The biggest question is whether emergency medical response is the best use of time for well-compensated firefighters, or whether there's a more cost-effective way to provide the two services.
"The fire service needs to reinvent itself," Broman says, speaking generically of departments across the nation. "Some agencies are embracing it, some are not. That becomes a leadership issue."
If ever there was a district that must examine alternatives, it's this one, which serves 600,000 residents in Central County, Antioch, Pittsburg and San Pablo.
Even after closing stations, even with recovering property tax revenues, even without budgeting for normal replacement of fire engines, the district is headed toward a financial cliff, spending more each year than it takes in and eating away the small reserves it has left.
That's in large part due to pension costs, which suck up more than a quarter of the district's budget. Firefighters' lucrative pensions are so costly that by next fiscal year, district payments to the retirement system and to cover bonds issued to help fund most firefighters' pensions have been forecast to cost taxpayers about $1.19 for every dollar of payroll (excluding overtime). Firefighters will also be hit hard, with payments of about 27 cents out of every dollar.
This can't continue.
County officials are talking about once again trying to pass a parcel tax to supplement the district's budget. The last attempt, in 2012, failed at the polls. And so will the next one if the district and firefighter union leaders once again fail to demonstrate that they made long-term structural reforms and curbed pension costs.