East Contra Costa County voters pulled no punches when they voted down a fire district parcel tax two weeks ago. A measure requiring a two-thirds majority failed to get 50 percent support.
Last week, residents learned the ramifications of that vote: 15 firefighters laid off, three of the district's six stations closed. Time to cross our fingers and wish for a mild summer fire season.
Several theories have been offered for the preponderance of "no" votes.
Perhaps voters thought the fire department could make do by trimming expenses. Perhaps no one expected such extreme cutbacks as a result of the denied funding. Perhaps this was a symbolic rejection of firefighters' perceived hefty retirement benefits.
One man who opposed the tax -- officially Measure S -- said the outcome might have been different if firefighters had offered to make benefit concessions. Understandable, if slightly flawed logic. According to Vince Wells, president of Local 1230, his union is open to a new benefits tier, but it can't do anything until state lawmakers approve a new pension formula.
More important than how we got here is what it means. Reducing fire protection resources -- this is only the latest of several cutbacks in recent years -- is like knocking over the first in a line of dominoes.
Fewer firefighters mean fewer emergency calls can be handled. Fewer firehouses mean response time will be delayed. Diminished fire protection
When major fires break out -- mutual-aid situations that require help from a neighboring district -- the complications will go two ways. East County will be more reliant than ever on the Contra Costa district and Contra Costa can expect less help from East County.
Fire chiefs from both districts are already discussing this dynamic, according to Contra Costa County Fire Marshall Louis Brochard. "We can't unnecessarily leave our areas uncovered to provide service to their area," he said. "We don't have an overabundance of resources to begin with."
Few of us sit around counting firefighters, but Brochard said the numbers are worrisome. Industry standards dictate one firefighter for every 1,000 residents, which means the Contra Costa district should have about 600. It has 250. The ratio is no better in the East County district, which stretches from Brentwood to Discovery Bay with more than 100,000 residents. Its numbers will now be 32.
It's easy to understand why voters balked at a tax that would have started at $197 per home and spanned 10 years.
"People are still suffering from the recession," said Measure S opponent Dave Roberts. "It's a bad time to ask for any tax."
It's just as easy to understand the fire district's request for funding help. Since the economy turned sour and property tax revenues collapsed, East County has seen its annual budget trimmed from $12 million to $8 million. It's impossible to deliver the same service at two-thirds of the cost.
What heightens interest is that a similar debate will play out on a larger scale in November. That's when Contra Costa will ask taxpayers to support a parcel tax.
"Anytime you go to the public and ask for money," said Brochard, "there's always concern about whether you are going to get enough support."
There's an old saying about getting what you pay for. Guess what you get when you decide not to pay.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.