Because taxes are as popular as bedbugs, it's no surprise the Contra Costa County Fire District parcel tax measure has been under attack since it was proposed. Critics want the district to find another way to balance its books. But, just wondering, have you noticed how little is being asked and how much is at stake?
If passed, the measure would cost each property owner $75 per year, which works out to a whopping $1.44 per week. With that windfall, you could buy a cup of coffee every Monday morning -- as long as you got it at McDonald's, not Starbucks.
If it fails, seven of the district's 28 fire stations will close, 80 of its 264 firefighters will be laid off, emergency services will be compromised and homeowner insurance premiums will go up.
It's obvious the opposition isn't grounded in risk-reward rationale.
Something deeper is at work, beginning with disdain for cushy firefighter benefits the public feels have caused budget problems. A "no" vote is meant to send a message, apparently regardless of consequence.
People wonder why the district can't live within its means. One answer is that its means aren't nearly what they were. When property tax bills shriveled like a plum in a sauna -- you've noticed you're paying less, right? -- so did the amount we paid for fire protection.
But we still expected the same service. Try getting that deal from PG&E.
No one wants another tax, and firefighters hardly
The district is already thinly staffed. Fire Chief Daryl Louder would need to more than double his staffing to hit the industry standard of one firefighter per 1,000 residents. Still, some question why so many firefighters.
How about leaving medical calls to contracted emergency medical units? Louder explains that firefighters can respond more quickly when seconds count because of their widely dispersed stations. When a recent call came in for a stroke victim in Lafayette, firefighters were treating the victim eight minutes before an American Medical Response team arrived. While the AMR unit was then occupied delivering its patient to the hospital, filing reports, cleaning and restocking its ambulance, the fire engine company was ready for its next call, fire or medical. Does it make sense to forgo that availability?
Some people question why 28 stations are required. Let Louder explain: "Our military's defense doctrine says it has to be prepared to fight multiple serious conflicts simultaneously. We're pretty much the same. We don't know when the next second- or third-alarm fire will come along, which could take 10 or 15 units."
Critics point out that less than 5 percent of district calls are for fires; more than 80 percent are medical. Fire Marshal Lewis Broschard said that's misleading, because a typical medical call requires one engine (three firefighters) for less than 20 minutes. A working fire takes five trucks (15 firefighters), for five or six times as long. District firefighters spend plenty of time lugging hoses. They average more than 500 structure fires a year.
Louder speaks with pride of his units. He said they do a lot with limited resources, but he fears a parcel tax defeat will push them beyond the brink.
"Once you pull that trigger," he said, "we're in for a tough ride. That scares me for the public, and it scares me for our firefighters."
The choice is yours. I'm willing to skip the cup of coffee.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.