Our fire district once again will ask its residents for more money. This coming June there will be a ballot measure at a cost to us of several thousands of dollars, whether we like it or not. It will ask you for more money over the tax money you already pay. This is not necessarily all bad if the district also implements other ideas previously suggested.
The fire district taxes we have now are among the lowest established under Proposition 13. Some areas of our fire district receive a larger portion of Prop. 13 funding while others receive less, but we all still pay the same dollar for dollar tax in the end. At the time Prop. 13 was drawn up, no one was looking into the future needs of the fire district. Prop. 13 is what it is and will not be changed anytime soon.
We have to make do with what this law allows. It was recommended to the county Board of Supervisors several times over the years that they create fire benefit assessment districts for the thousands of new homes that were approved. This only happened in one subdivision, Cypress Lakes. While the city of Brentwood did create several benefit assessment districts it also included language allowing the city exclusive control over how and where those funds are used. Since their inception, none have been used to fund the fire district. Literally thousands of homes have been built without addressing the funding needed for the fire district to grow with the population.
While three East County fire districts have been allowed to merge, our local supervisors have not implemented proper funding mechanisms, such as benefit assessments on new development, to offset the switch from paid-on-call to full-time staffing of the new fire district. Thus, the district's finances have continued to slowly deteriorate.
The negative effects of eliminating the lower tier paid-on-call firefighters without a proper funding plan have now surfaced. The fire district is already $13 million in debt for the pensions of the career firefighters alone and is barely covering its high payroll costs with the funding it has. Fire fighting has become very expensive. The current federal grant funding (a temporary band aid fix) is about to run out.
The good news is that homes are selling and tax revenues are climbing for the fire district, but that is not enough. It appears it will again be up to the voters to approve another tax measure. In January the district will reach out to educate the people about why it needs more money to survive. While nothing could be more truthful, the public may not have the extra cash to spare.
The fire commission has talked about many ideas, including contracting out, merging with another district, charging for services, restarting the reserve program, or possibly creating a districtwide mandatory benefit assessment on all new development. However, none of the ideas has actually been implemented and time is running out. This is not fair to the citizens holding the bag. Every resident of East County -- man, woman and child -- would owe more than $100 if all the existing pensions were honored today. A new tax is only one part of what is needed.
This issue needs to be dealt with once and for all. I believe a new tax will not be enough unless it is several hundreds of dollars per parcel, but people may not be able to afford several hundred dollars in new taxes.
Already the federal and state governments are requiring higher taxes from everyone for 2013. Without a modest tax and implementing some or all of the previous funding ideas considered, the fire district will continue to chase its own tail. Development needs to stop until this issue has a permanent resolution. Each new family that moves to East County places greater demand on our fire services. The cities and the county continue to allow more development without supplemental revenue to offset the demand. This must stop now if we are to keep an active full-force fire suppression district alive.
Benefit assessments are just one of many ideas needed to catch up financially. Two examples of other districts that have kept up with funding needs are the East Bay Regional Park District and the Liberty High Union School District. Notice on your tax bill the multiple added taxes for these two districts.
Our county supervisors failed to apply this type of new revenue in a timely manner and then dropped the financially failing fire district on East County saying we wanted local control. We used to have total support and local control with commissions under previous supervisors until they were dissolved by the current one. Local needs were ignored for the first eight years of the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District's existence.
Today we have the opportunity to solve the funding issue by compromise. The district can, if it chooses to, implement cost saving ideas before asking for a new tax. A promise to do this along with the tax would be a partnership between the district and the community. The district should demand teamwork by all of its staff, the unions, the cities, and the county.
I propose the commission designate a portion of the proposed tax to a reserve fund, create a districtwide mandatory benefit assessment policy on all new development, charge for certain insured services such as vehicle accidents, and increase salaries to the firefighters while at the same time increasing their employee contribution size to address the pension deficit. A portion of the increased employee contribution could be applied directly to unfunded liabilities that have accrued, and finally limit the length of the new tax to a specified period of time. Make the amount of the proposed new tax enough to stop the band aid approach.
We all need to compromise and become a team for this to work. If not, it's time to throw in the towel and let the county or state take over. I would like to see the primary work.
John A Gonzales is a Knightsen resident.