Correspondent

HERCULES -- The Rodeo-Hercules Fire District board resisted a call from one of its members this week to rescind a controversial $82-a-year benefit assessment on most district properties that is designed to bolster fire protection and emergency medical response.

Board member Bill Prather reiterated his stance that the board's recent approval of the assessment on area properties is wrong and open to a legal challenge. Prather was the lone dissenter when the board approved the assessment in the June vote.

"I think if we continue with this, we're going to get a black eye" because the assessment will likely be challenged in court, Prather said during Wednesday's board meeting. "This director would like to see it rescinded."

The benefit assessment will also help cover costs to reopen the Rodeo station, one of two in the district; the other is in Hercules. The assessment was approved by a weighted majority of property owners who voted via a mail-in election that concluded in May.

Although there was no formal vote, Prather's fellow board members said they are also adamant in their stance.

Fire board member John Mills said he hosted more than 100 people at his home during the recent National Night Out, and attendees were overwhelmingly supportive of the assessment. "I agree (with the decision). This is the path we've taken. It's the right thing to do," he said.


Advertisement

The fire board verbally agreed Wednesday to a board retreat with fire Chief Charles Hanley to discuss the district's past, present and future -- and the assessment.

Taxpayer groups say the board-approved assessment violates the California Constitution because it's being passed off as conferring a special rather than a general benefit.

Alex Aliferis, executive director of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association, said the discussion Wednesday was good but didn't want to comment on the possibility of a lawsuit.

"I've been receiving correspondence from residents, and they don't want this," he said.

Vince Wells, head of the firefighters union, Local 1230, disagreed. "It would be a slap in the face to the public and to the process" to change now, he said.

The assessment is calculated to raise close to $1 million a year for the district. Under the assessment, single-family houses would pay $82 a year; condos and apartments, $46.93; and stores, $60.30 per one-fifth acre. Industrial properties would pay varying rates, based on their fire risk and the replacement cost of structures.

The East Contra Costa Fire District's board officially decided earlier this month to pursue a benefit assessment of its own in an attempt to keep its five remaining stations open.

If a majority of property owners approve the proposal in October, the assessment will generate just over $4 million annually for five years starting in 2015.

During the discussion leading up to the East Contra Costa Fire District's Aug. 4 vote, there was no concern that the assessment might not be legal, said Director Joe Young.

Although critics sometimes argue that benefit assessments can't be used for any fire services, district counsel Shayna van Hoften said that state law and the state constitution allow fire districts that source of revenue as long as the assessments directly benefit property. As such, East Contra Costa Fire may not assess property owners for the cost of providing emergency medical services.

Staff writer Rowena Coetsee contributed to this story.