Voters' rejection in November of a Contra Costa Fire District parcel tax -- it would have cost a typical property owner $75 per year -- was widely seen as a two-part ultimatum to those in charge: 1) Learn to live within your budget, and 2) find a less costly way to deliver emergency services.
Five months later, we now can see how the district has responded to the budgetary demand. First, it closed Fire Stations Nos. 4 (Walnut Creek), 12 (Martinez) and 16 (Lafayette), and drastically reduced service at No. 11 (Clayton). Last week, it decided to shut down No. 87 (Pittsburg) and indicated it will close another station next year.
This might not be the live-within-your-means solution tax-conscious residents were seeking, but it's the one they got. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. By the way, fire season is approaching.
As for demand No. 2 -- a less expensive delivery system -- you might want to find a good book and pull up a comfortable chair. You could be waiting a while. The Contra Costa County board of supervisors, which doubles as the fire board, is a long way from resolving that issue.
"Right now, there are no alternatives from my perspective other than continuing to close stations," Supervisor Karen Mitchoff said.
"I've been pondering that, and talking to different folks," said Supervisor Federal Glover, "but I just don't have any idea at the moment."
It's not as if the supervisors have avoided the topic. Fact is, they commissioned independent consultants Fitch & Associates to assist county agencies in evaluating service delivery options, performance requirements, roles, goals and visions for the future. But that study isn't expected to yield long-term recommendations for months.
In the meantime, a lot can go wrong.
"There is a lot of angst and concern, as there should be," Supervisor John Gioia said, "and all the communities impacted have very legitimate concerns. This is not a situation we want to be in. There is no answer today."
The anti-tax crusaders will never admit this, but they backed an empty premise if they believed a "no" vote would mean quick institutional reform. What it meant was drastic cost-cutting, reduced staffing, slower response times and greater danger to residents, as the fire district warned. Opponents dismissed the warning as "fear tactics."
"I understand the frustration with government," Mitchoff said. "I understand there are some people who don't trust government. On the other hand, those of us elected locally have the closest ties to our public, and it's sad to me they didn't believe us."
The lagging economy and unfunded retirement benefits that caused a budget crisis were a long time in the making and will take a long time to fix. The parcel tax was a stopgap measure intended to buy time while seeking solutions. Denied that revenue, emergency response resources have been reduced and public safety has been compromised.
Said Mitchoff, "This isn't a case of 'We told you we're going to do it, so now we've got to do it.' It's a case of 'We told you we're going to do it, and we were telling you the truth.' "
Maybe the district's 600,000 residents will get lucky. Maybe this will be the summer with no serious fires.
If that seems like a foolhardy gamble, try looking on the bright side -- rejecting the parcel tax saved you $75.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.