From Bay City News:
Voters in the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District are weighing a seven-year parcel tax that fire officials say is needed to prevent station closures.
Measure Q would establish a $75 annual parcel tax for each single-family home and per quarter-acre of business space within the district. The measure needs two-thirds approval to pass.
The district spans 304 square miles in Antioch, Clayton, Concord, Lafayette, Martinez, Pittsburg, Pleasant Hill, Walnut Creek and a handful of unincorporated communities.
Revenues from the tax would pay for fire protection, prevention and emergency services including equipment, personnel costs and capital improvements. The tax would take effect on July 1, 2013.
Contra Costa fire officials say Measure Q's passage is critical in preventing station closures in the financially strapped district.
Voters in the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District rejected a similar measure in June, leading that district to shutter three stations and lay off 15 firefighters. The district plans to reopen the stations and re-hire staff later this year after receiving a $7.8 million federal grant.
Contra Costa County Fire Protection District Marshal Lewis Broschard said his district is struggling to stay afloat.
"We have serious concerns about the ability to provide adequate protection and emergency medical services when we're already at 44 percent of fire industry standards," he said.
Since the district is funded mainly by property taxes, plummeting property values and reduced property tax income have hit the district especially hard, he said.
In response to recent budget shortfalls, the district has cut numerous positions, laid off personnel and cut firefighters' salaries by 10 percent, Broschard said.
New hires face an additional 10 percent salary cut and are required to contribute more to their pensions, he said.
"We've cut down to the bone to try and continue providing services while reducing the cost," Broschard said.
Still, it's not enough to continue funding the district's services at their current level, at which 85 firefighters are on duty daily at 28 fire stations, according to fire officials.
Broschard said that without the estimated $17 million that would be generated by Measure Q, critical prevention services that keep the rate of fires down district-wide would be cut.
Even more worrisome, he said, is that without fully staffed fire stations, some residents would have to wait longer for responders to arrive. And in medical emergencies, every minute counts, Broschard said.
Since January, the district has been the first responder in 16 cardiac arrest cases in which the patients were not breathing when fire personnel arrived, according to the fire marshal.
"Those 16 people are alive today because the fire engine was the closest resource to their medical emergency, that fire engine got there in time ... and they walked away from the hospital days later because of it," Broschard said. "Waiting for ambulances that are eight to 10 minutes away, we don't have those success stories."
The measure has drawn some opposition, including from Supervisor Candace Andersen and Contra Costa Taxpayers Association President Kris Hunt.
Opponents argue that the measure is only a temporary budget fix, and that the district's money woes would be less severe if fire officials had agreed to rein in costly pensions and other personnel costs.
Hunt, who wrote the ballot argument against Measure Q, argues that the district has long lived beyond its means and that a "no" vote would equal a demand that the fire district "fix pensions first before asking taxpayers to pay more."
She noted that the district's retirement costs take up about a quarter of its $100 million budget this fiscal year. The district this year has allocated $7.6 million for retiree health care alone, and is paying about $26 million in total pension-related costs. And that's not counting the $11 million the district allocates for overtime pay, she added.
"You don't see anything like that in the private sector now -- it's excessive, and we just can't afford that," Hunt said.
She argues that the district has repeatedly forgone the tough decisions needed to balance its budget, opting instead to spend its savings on unsustainable personnel costs. Hunt said that if Measure Q passes, she expects the fire district to ask for an extension of the property tax once it is due to expire.
"This doesn't solve the problem," she said. "At the end of the seven years, they're going to be in the hole again."
Broschard insists that he and other fire officials expect the district to be in the black well after the tax's 2020 expiration date without an extension.
He also said that the district was in the process of negotiating pensions with its largest union when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Public Employee Pension Reform Act, which requires state employees to pay at least half of their pension costs.
Do you support Measure Q? Why/Why not? Share your thoughts in the comments.