The Contra Costa Fire District will shutter a third of its 28 fire stations unless voters OK a parcel tax in November, fire officials will advise county supervisors Tuesday.
But the district's April poll reveals a steep climb ahead for a tax hike in its nine central Contra Costa cities and unincorporated areas.
The tax needs a two-thirds vote. Survey results showed that voters might narrowly approve $63 a year, the lowest of four individual amounts polled. Voters told pollsters that taxes already are too high, and they fear the money will be misspent.
A fire parcel tax measure on the June ballot in East Contra Costa County fell short by nearly 23 percentage points, and the district will close half of its six fire stations on July 1.
Despite voter angst, Contra Costa Fire Chief Daryl Louder is set to make a case Tuesday for a parcel tax of up to $88 a year for each of the next five years. He has not yet made public his specific dollar recommendation.
As the outcome in East Contra Costa showed, a ballot measure is a chance for the "public to determine the level of fire protection they are going to get from their emergency responders," said Contra Costa Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho of Discovery Bay. "No longer are elected leaders making all the decisions on service levels. The funding is so critical that either cutbacks need to be made or there will be support for new revenue."
At $88 a year, the tax would boost the district's
Unlike county departments such as the sheriff or public works, the fire district relies almost solely on property tax revenues, a source that has been in steady decline since the recession. The district's income has dropped $32 million since 2008, fire officials say.
At the same time, health care costs are rising and market losses in the public employee pension investment portfolio -- coupled with the more generous benefits awarded during good times -- is pushing up retirement costs.
The district projects its annual pension payments will consume 40 percent of its income by 2017, rising from $26 million this fiscal year to $35.7 million.
But without the money, Louder indicated he will have to close up to 10 of the district's 28 fire stations and lay off a third of the firefighters.
Longer response times will lead to more property damage and human injuries, and property owners will pay higher fire insurance rates, the chief said in a staff report.
In the past several years, the district has shut down two fire engine units, eliminated positions and deferred equipment replacement.
The firefighters' union also has agreed to a 10 percent pay cut and will next month start negotiations on the creation of a less expensive retirement plan for new firefighters.
"The district's response capabilities and staffing levels are already well below fire service standards and those of comparable communities," Louder wrote in a letter he sent to households in the district earlier this month.
Residents appear skeptical.
The district's phone survey of 600 likely voters found 69 percent would support a tax of up to $88 a year. It needs 66.6 percent to pass. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
A successful ballot measure typically polls high early in the cycle and has room to drop during the election season.
Critics likely will focus on pension reform and how the district operates.
Significant legal barriers block major changes to pensions, however. Courts have said agencies cannot cut benefits for current employees, although many have established less costly plans for new workers.
On the operations front, some residents are questioning why the district needs so many highly trained firefighters when 85 percent of its calls are medical.
"The fire district continues to believe in responding to the emergency needs of the community ... with 19th-century procedures and a continuing push to justify its existence by supplying redundant emergency medical services with perhaps the most expensive delivery system ever devised," wrote Pleasant Hill resident Michael Schneider in response to the chief's letter.
Firefighters respond to medical calls as an added value to the taxpayer, countered firefighters union Local 1230 spokesman Vince Wells. But their primary role is responding to everything from blazes to automobile crashes to industrial disasters, he said.
What: The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors will discuss placing on the November ballot a five-year parcel tax measure for fire service in the Contra Costa Fire District. It serves 600,000 residents in nine central county cities and unincorporated areas.
When: 1:30 p.m., Tuesday
Where: Board chambers, 651 Pine St., Martinez
Details: View the agenda and reports at www.co.contra-costa.ca.us. (Click on "Board of Supervisors" then "Board meeting agendas and videos" then "2012."