Contra Costa's fiscally ailing fire agencies must consolidate, lower labor costs and abandon outdated delivery models rather than rely on tax infusions, said the county civil grand jury.
While the districts under the biggest financial distress may need extra revenue in the short term, new taxes should sunset and the agencies pushed to live within their means, the Contra Costa civil grand jury concluded in a report released this week.
"Simply asking the taxpayers for more money to fund old service models and support burdensome labor agreements is not the answer," the grand jury wrote. "Most fire agencies are trying to solve their problems individually. ... (The agencies) should leverage their collective strengths to identify and implement the best way to address their collective weaknesses."
The jurists' recommendations come just days after voters overwhelmingly rejected a parcel tax in the East Contra Costa Fire District, forcing the agency to close half of its six stations and lay off 15 firefighters. The Pinole and Rodeo-Hercules districts are in financial stress, too.
The more affluent Moraga-Orinda and San Ramon Valley fire districts are in better shape -- the vast majority of fire service funding comes from property taxes -- but they are burning through their reserves, too, the grand jury concluded.
The Contra Costa Fire District, which protects 257 square miles and nine cities in the central portion of the county, intends to
Firefighters' Local 1230 President Vince Wells said he agreed with many of the recommendations, although he said the report failed to acknowledge the impacts of reduced service on public safety. Nine of the county's 50 fire stations have closed since 2008.
The grand jury's suggestions have a "lot of validity," said Contra Costa fire Chief Daryl Louder. "But consolidation will require an awful lot of political will and the citizens have to want it, too."
Fire districts throughout California saw substantial fiscal hits when property values plunged during the recession and failed to fully recover. At the same time, the economic downturn devastated anticipated investment returns in public employee pensions.
As a result of investment losses coupled with benefit increases granted during good times, public agencies have watched their annual payments into the retirement system skyrocket.
Four years ago, the Contra Costa Local Agency Formation Commission, which has jurisdiction over local government service boundaries, commissioned a 342-page study of the county's fire and emergency services, which contained many suggestions similar to those made by the grand jury.
Very few of those recommendations materialized.
Most communities are fiercely protective of local control and unwilling to share funds. The wealthier districts fear consolidation will lead to less service at home in order to subsidize the poorer areas.
East Contra Costa Fire's loss at the ballot box last week and the Contra Costa Fire District's planned November parcel tax measure will almost certainly revive the debate over how to pay for fire protection.
The grand jury has advised fire agencies to jointly hire outside industry experts, explore the use of technology and follow the lead of innovative fellow agencies.
For example, Los Angeles, Orange, Alameda and Sacramento counties are saving 10 to 20 percent a year in operating expenses through consolidation of administrative tasks such as purchasing, the jury report cited.
In addition, the jurists note that the percentage of fire incidents has declined in the past decade to about 5 to 6 percent of all calls. The remainder are medical emergencies, of which about half require an ambulance transport.
While the public still expects firefighters to put out fires, the heavy medical call volume is "a significant shift in the type of equipment and skill set of the responders needed at most incidents," the grand jury wrote.