With ballots for the fire district special assessment now in the hands of East County home and property owners, I've been thinking again of a fire my family experienced several years ago.
We were on vacation at the time. I got a call from my brother-in-law telling me there'd been a fire at the house. Few details were available. I got home as quickly as possible and, as I drove up, could clearly see the destruction. I walked in to find major fire damage in the kitchen and considerable smoke damage to the adjoining rooms. I was devastated. Your home, the place where you live and raise your family, is a precious thing. To see it so damaged was both shocking and debilitating.
But, as I walked through the rest of the house, I found many areas untouched. Some of the rooms, clothing, furniture, and irreplaceable pictures and papers were either pristine or salvageable. Why? Because the local fire department had responded so quickly to the fire and worked hard to minimize the damage. The destruction was huge, to both our property and our sense of well being, but there was a lot left. Enough to make a new start and move on.
I certainly never thought I'd suffer a fire. It was the farthest thing from my mind. If you'd have put a ballot measure before me to maintain fire services in the area before the fire, I might well have thought of my wallet first and my home and the good of the community second. If at all. But I know better now. Experience is the best teacher.
The last East County fire measure in 2011 may have been rejected by voters, but it asked for nearly three times what the present measure does. The district rolled the dice, hoping to be able to expand services.
This time, with the district asking for just enough money to properly staff and maintain present services, it's the homeowner rolling the dice by voting against the measure. You can say, "It'll never happen to me," but I'm here to tell you it can. And the cost could be catastrophic in a district where manpower, equipment, and response times are further affected by budget cuts.
Anyone who knows the facts realizes that the district's in trouble. When Proposition 13 was passed in 1978, both property taxes and allocations to fire districts were frozen. At the time, much of East County was working with volunteer fire departments. With growth and the necessary addition of regular fire services, the lower allocations for areas formerly protected by volunteers caused a shortfall.
Today, the deficit in funding has grown to crisis levels. The downtown Brentwood fire station will have to be closed on Sept 1. The Knightsen fire station will follow if the measure doesn't pass, leaving us with only three stations to cover nearly 250 square miles of service area.
Meanwhile, since February, 10 East County firefighters have left to find jobs in other districts (neighboring districts pay 25 percent more in salary). Where there were 45 firefighters before, only 33 are left. They are working excessive hours of overtime, causing major increases in overtime pay and a fatigue factor unhealthy for both staff and overall service. When the district loses its federal SAFER grant in November, things will only get worse.
The good news is that, in a survey of East County homeowners in July, 57 percent favored the measure. Only 23 percent subscribed to the "no tax is a good tax" philosophy, which dominated in 2011 before the economy made its partial recovery. The assessment would be less than $113 for 96 percent of the homeowner/property owners involved. That's hardly unreasonable given the present situation.
At the end of the day, many people don't realize how hard firefighters work to protect lives and property in our community. These are people who, one day, may be asked to put their lives at risk for you and yours. They go to bat for you every day. Through nearly 2,000 service calls a year. Is it too much to ask that we go to bat for them when we cast our ballot and give them the tools needed to offer the most basic of services?
And if you think the worst will never happen, that you'll never need the services of a firefighter, I'm here to tell you different. It happened to me. It can happen to you.
Ron Borland is an Oakley resident.