Voters torched the Contra Costa Fire District's parcel tax Tuesday, a decision that will shutter four of 28 fire stations in January, close up to another half-dozen by 2015 and scale back responses to low-priority calls.
Measure Q won a majority of the votes but fell a substantial 14 percentage points shy of the two-thirds threshold it needed to pass.
Negative public sentiment about firefighter pensions, competing tax measures and the steep two-thirds voter threshold all dampened the temporary $75-a-year parcel tax's chances at the polls.
It's the second fire agency defeat in Contra Costa in less than a year.
East Contra Costa Fire District voters turned down a parcel tax in June, which led to the closure of half of its six stations. The federal government later awarded the district a two-year grant, but the lengthy hiring and training process has delayed reopening the first of the three closed stations until mid-November.
"Twice now, voters have looked into firefighters' eyes and checked the no box," said Contra Costa Taxpayers Association Executive Director Kris Hunt. "Many people feel they are trading pensions for service, and they resent that. This is a pretty clear case of voters being faced with a concrete decision."
Measure Q contained no pension cost reductions. New legislation recently cut benefits for new hires, but current firefighters have vested rights that courts have said cannot be taken away once promised.
Firefighters have gotten the message, said union Local 1230 President Vince Wells.
"We have fought this battle twice, and twice now voters have said they aren't willing to pay to keep up the service levels," said Wells, a fire captain and paramedic. "Contra Costa has already lost nine fire stations in the past few years, and now we'll lose four more. There will be a significant change in the level of fire service in this county. But we tried."
Without the roughly $17 million a year from the tax, Contra Costa Fire District officials must trim its budget to $88 million, a 15 percent reduction.
No firefighters will lose their jobs when the first four stations close in January because the district has numerous unfilled positions and has been covering shifts with overtime. Future layoff numbers will depend on attrition rates for retirement and other departures.
The district hasn't yet said which stations will close, but when it looked at possible shutdowns in 2010, it identified stations in Martinez, Concord, Lafayette and Pittsburg. The Board of Supervisors is expected to make the decision next month.
The 304-square-mile district includes Antioch, Clayton, Concord, Lafayette, Martinez, Pittsburg-Bay Point, Pleasant Hill, San Pablo, Walnut Creek and unincorporated areas.
Fewer stations and firefighters will lead to greater fire damage, more severe injuries and higher numbers of deaths, Contra Costa Fire Chief Daryl Louder has repeatedly warned.
With 265 sworn personnel for 600,000 residents, the district is already staffed at half the industry standard. Throughout the county, only East Contra Costa and the Rodeo-Hercules fire agencies have lower staffing levels.
The district began in 2008 seeing unprecedented recessionary financial losses and has been burning through its reserves despite 10 percent pay cuts, a lower pay scale for new hires, numerous unfilled positions and widespread deferred equipment repair and purchases.