It would be the foxes guarding the hen house. San Ramon Valley residents should be alarmed by a labor move to take control of the fire district board during critical contract negotiations that will affect the ability to deliver future services.

The firefighters already receive the best compensation package in Contra Costa. District pension contributions alone account for 28 percent of the entire general fund budget. On top of that, current and retired employees receive free medical coverage.

Worse, the district failed to properly fund its pensions and sets aside nothing to cover promised medical coverage of future retirees. As a result, the district has an unfunded retirement liability of $155 million, a debt equal to about 2½ years of district expenditures.

Meanwhile, almost no money is being set aside to replace aging buildings and equipment. And in three of four years now the district has siphoned off reserves by spending more money than it takes in. Multimillion dollar deficits are forecast for the next four years.

"There is a fiscal cliff on the horizon," Fire Chief Richard Price warned in his June budget memo to the Board of Directors.

Yet firefighters have balked at making concessions the district needs to help head off a financial disaster. As a result they are working under the terms of a lucrative contract that expired 19 months ago.

If ever there was a time for strong board leadership loyal to residents and taxpayers, this is it. But if firefighters have their way, they will soon be running the show.

Here's why: Three of the five seats on the board will be filled in the Nov. 6 election. Firefighters already control one of the other two seats. Now they are trying to elect three more directors: Accountant Stephen Mohun, brother of the president of the firefighters union; Alameda County Fire Capt. Gordon Dakin, a past San Ramon Valley district director whose cousin sits on the union's executive board; and Gerardo Peniche, an information technology worker and brother-in-law of a district firefighter.

Our interviews revealed that none of the three understands the budget problem or gravity of the situation. Election of any two would give firefighters majority control of the board with which they are negotiating. Taxpayers would be left out in the cold.

Unfortunately, there are only two other candidates running. They both must win to stop the takeover. Incumbent Matt Stamey, a retired Fortune 500 firm manager, and Jay Kerr, a longtime valley veterinarian, have both carefully studied the district's financial problems and understand their responsibility to residents.

Even though voters can select three candidates, we urge them to pick only Kerr and Stamey. We don't usually advocate strategic balloting. But in this case voting for a third candidate would hurt Kerr's and Stamey's election chances.

The firefighters will win at least one of the three seats. Voters who care about the financial future of their fire district should ensure that they only win one.

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