East Contra Costa Fire District officials are preparing for station closures and layoffs in the next several weeks following a failed parcel tax.
The resounding defeat of Measure S at the polls Tuesday -- the proposal fell 23 percentage points short of the two-thirds vote needed -- will force the agency to shut down more stations and slash its payroll.
The tax, which was slated to take effect July 1, would have started at $197 and increased by up to 3 percent annually until it reached $257 in 2021-22, when it was scheduled to sunset.
Over the next decade, Measure S would have generated up to $101 million that not only would have preserved the status quo but enabled the district to reopen one of the two stations it closed in summer 2010 and hire enough firefighters with paramedic training to have one of them on each shift.
The district's nine-member board of directors will meet Monday to decide which of two options to adopt. One would involve giving 16 of its 43 firefighters pink slips and closing the Bethel Island and Knightsen stations as well as one of the two in Brentwood; the other would be to eliminate 19 jobs and shutter the first two stations only.
Fire Chief Hugh Henderson has recommended the board close three stations so that it can operate according to the industry standard of three firefighters per shift.
Seniority and rank will be two of the factors determining who will go and who will stay, he said.
That's the price government agencies now are paying for having misspent funds, said Clayton resident Austin Allen.
He said he voted against Measure S primarily because the firefighters' union didn't finish negotiating its new contract before the election, choosing instead to wait and see whether there would be more money on the table.
The idea of public employees wanting more in benefits than many in the private sector receive didn't sit well with the recent college graduate, who said he's working only three days a week because his digital advertising job doesn't offer full-time hours.
In addition, the district was projecting to be deficit spending again in five years even if the tax passed, Allen said.
"I felt like they're asking for more money so they can spend more money. They're not really trying to fix the problem that they're spending more than they're making," he said.
Although disappointed, fire board President Kevin Romick was matter-of-fact about Measure S's chances Tuesday night based on the initial tally of mail-in ballots.
"I was pretty much resolved to the fact that it wasn't going to pass unless we found a box stuck in a corner full of yes votes," he said.
Romick only could speculate what the primary reason was for residents' opposition. Is it the economy? A distaste for taxes in general? Skepticism that the district actually will close stations? Or perhaps firefighters are doing such a good job right now that the public doesn't see the need to shore up services, he said.
One thing Romick is sure of is that the measure reflected the wishes of those who attended the informational meetings the district held on Measure S.
"We were listening to the people who did show up, and as a board that's all we can do," he said, noting that the board added a sunset clause and reduced the annual increase from 5 percent at voters' request.
Money troubles have dogged East Contra Costa Fire District for years, but they intensified in 2008 with the collapse of the housing market.
Property tax revenue, which accounts for about 90 percent of the district's budget, has dropped by more than 30 percent over the past four years, and in summer 2010, the agency was forced to close two stations.