Residents of Moraga and Orinda: Wake up! If your fire district directors don't take drastic action soon, the two-city agency will run short of money to operate.
The district's auditor has warned that it's on an "unsustainable" fiscal path. As new Director Alex Evans says: "We have to put everything on the table. Otherwise we're going to go out of business." Recently, appointed Chief Stephen Healy adds, "We're just trying to keep the lights on."
Worse, that doesn't begin to address the district's soaring long-term debt for employee retirement benefits, which has increased 38 percent in just two years to a staggering $94 million.
We hate to tell you we told you so. But for years we've been warning that this day would come, that the district was spending far beyond its means while ignoring its ballooning financial liabilities.
Some directors say they are providing the service constituents want. Residents might want it, but the district cannot afford it. And if those residents understood the huge debt being dumped onto future generations of taxpayers, they would rebel.
Unfortunately, most residents seem ignorant of, or indifferent to, the crisis. And the two veteran board members -- Fred Weil and John Wyro -- have buried their heads in the sand for years.
The district has had plenty of money: Its general fund expenditures are about the same as the city governments of Moraga and Orinda combined. Yet it has consistently budgeted expenses that exceed revenues.
That's right: Directors planned to run the district in the red. To cover the difference, they dipped into reserves. Now that kitty has dried up.
This day of reckoning was inevitable but came slightly early because the district had been claiming it had access to funds actually needed to pay off bondholders. The district's new finance chief recently discovered the error.
Then there's the debt. The district's pension and retiree health programs are deeply underfunded. The $94 million represents the difference between how much has already been set aside for benefits and how much it should have now.
It's an obligation the district must pay. Property owners will be on the hook for decades to cover the cost of retirement benefits workers have already earned. To put it in perspective, the debt works out to about $7,800 for every household in the district. It's more than five times the district's annual revenues.
Directors have started to wake up and make changes. But, they must go much further to restore financial stability. Meanwhile, voters should wake up, too. After all, there is a board election next year.