When a neighboring shop's soiled rags caught fire in early October, Walker's Auto Body owner Gigi Walker was terrified it would spread into her family's North Concord business.
Contra Costa Fire District firefighters quickly stamped out the blaze. But the close call left Walker worried.
She's counting on the passage of Measure Q on Nov. 6, which would bail out the financially ailing fire district through a temporary $75-a-year tax on single family homeowners and a tiered fee system for shops.
Without the roughly $17 million a year the tax would generate toward its $100 million budget, fire officials say they must shutter up to 10 of the district's 28 stations and lay off a third of its firefighters.
"I know people are concerned about the cost of public employee pensions but you can't fix everything with one measure," Walker said. "I don't want my business to burn down because the closest fire station closed and firefighters had to drive here from further away.
"And this is the Bay Area. We have earthquakes. It's crazy to talk about cutting emergency services," she added.
Measure Q's most outspoken opponent doesn't want anyone's business or home to go up in flames.
But Contra Costa Taxpayers Association Director Kris Hunt says a temporary tax infusion will delay critical pension and service model reforms and jeopardize fire service over the long haul. Retirement costs, for example, consume a quarter of the agency's budget this fiscal year and the percentage is expected to grow, she said.
"Our concern about Measure Q from the outset is that it doesn't solve the problem," Hunt said during a televised debate. "It isn't about firefighting services. Everyone agrees this is a critical service and should be provided. However, it has to be at a cost that is affordable (to) the residents and sustainable."
The women perfectly illustrate voters' Measure Q conundrum: How does the county reverse unsustainable costs in a key public service without suffering catastrophic losses of life and property?
With 265 sworn personnel for 600,000 residents, the district is already staffed at half the industry standard recommended by the International City/County Management Association. In Contra Costa, only East Contra Costa and the Rodeo-Hercules fire agencies have lower staffing levels.
The 304-square-mile district includes Antioch, Bay Point, Clayton, Concord, El Sobrante, Lafayette, Martinez, Pacheco, Pittsburg, Pleasant Hill, San Pablo, Walnut Creek and additional unincorporated areas.
Closing more fire stations and laying off firefighters will push the district to the bottom and it will have negative consequences, Contra Costa fire Chief Daryl Louder has repeatedly warned.
Fewer stations and firefighters will mean longer response times and lead to greater fire damage, more severe injuries and higher numbers of deaths, the chief has said.
Among his examples: A structure fire doubles in size every two minutes and an oxygen-deprived brain suffers damage in 4 to 6 minutes.
Hunt doesn't dispute the chief's analysis but strenuously objects to what she calls an "invented crisis."
"They have known this day was coming for years but they did almost nothing and now they want the taxpayers to rescue them," Hunt said. "It's not good government and it's not good for the community."
The board of supervisors, which manages the fire district, may have made mistakes but local leaders, firefighters and residents didn't cause the recession, countered Vince Wells, president of United Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County Local 1230.
Despite 10 percent pay cuts, a lower pay scale for new hires and deferred equipment repair and purchases, the district started burning through its reserves in 2008. It points to four crippling financial punches:
While critics focus on pensions, Measure Q has no impact on retirement benefits, Wells has said.
So far, the courts have consistently said employers cannot take away current employees' vested benefits, although there are several pending cases stemming from June ballot measures in San Jose and San Diego.
Local 1230 had been negotiating a less expensive retirement package for new firefighters, but pension legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown made those discussions moot.
The law reduces retirement benefits for public safety employees hired after Jan. 1, 2013, and requires all workers to pay half of their pension costs.
What it would do: Levy an annual $75 fire safety parcel tax on single-family homes, $37.50 for condominiums, and establish a tiered fee for commercial, industrial and other properties in the Contra Costa Fire District. The Contra Costa board of supervisors placed the measure on the ballot in order to avert closure of up to 10 of the district's 28 fire stations
Votes to pass: Two-thirds
Supporters: United Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County Local 1230, Contra Costa fire Chief Daryl Louder, American Medical Response, Contra Costa County Fire Advisory Commission, Contra Costa Sheriff David Livingston and Public Employees Union Local One.
Opponents: Contra Costa County Taxpayers Association
Money: The Committee to Protect Contra Costa Fire and Emergency Services had raised $83,719 for Measure Q as of Sept. 30. Most of the money came from firefighters; opponents have not raised or spent any money
ELECTION PREVIEW 2012
Watch the hourlong round-table debate on the Contra Costa Fire District's fire safety parcel tax:
Public access television -- Channel 27: 8 p.m. on Oct. 14, 21, 28, 30 and Nov. 4. Channel 28 in Walnut Creek: 2 p.m. on Oct. 14, 21, 28 and Nov. 4. Channel 28 in Concord: 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 29, Oct. 20, 26, 27, 28, Nov. 2, 3, 4 and 5
Online anytime -- contracostatimes.com/elections or http://bcove.me/5wtnxi01