On November 6, voters will have the opportunity to enter the voting booth and raise their own taxes through a variety of measures on the ballot. One of these will be a $75 per parcel tax requested by the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (“ConFire”). A 55% majority vote would raise approximately $16.8 million annually and sunset after seven years. On July 31, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, which serves as ConFire’s Board of Directors, in a 4-1 vote, decided to place the tax on the ballot. I was the lone vote against it.
The Formation and Coverage of ConFire
Most Contra Costa County cities don’t have their own fire departments. Instead, emergency medical services, fire protection, fire suppression, and other emergency responses are provided by fire protection districts. These are independent governmental entities, overseen by their own boards of directors, and with independent sources of revenue.
ConFire is one such fire protection district. ConFire was formed in the early 1960’s through a merger of several existing fire districts. It has 28 stations and serves the cities of Antioch, Clayton, Concord, Lafayette, Martinez, Pittsburg, Pleasant Hill, San Pablo, and Walnut Creek. ConFire also serves the unincorporated communities of Bay Point, Clyde, El Sobrante, Montalvin Manor, North Richmond, and Pacheco. These are the communities which will be voting on the parcel tax.
ConFire’s Budget Problems
ConFire’s budget for 2012-13 includes expenditures of just under $99.8 million, while its revenue is estimated at $88.7 million. The budget gap will be closed through the use of reserves, which will be exhausted next year. Of the $99.8 million in expenses, $31 million goes to pension and retirement healthcare costs. For every $1 in regular salary paid, another 88 cents goes toward these retiree expenses. Salaries and benefits account for 85% of the District’s budget. ConFire firefighters retire with a 3% at 50 formula for their pensions (3% of their salary for every year of service, with eligibility at age 50).
ConFire receives approximately 90% of its funding from property taxes, which is typical of most fire districts. Like many agencies, it was hit hard by the decline in property taxes. From 2008-2012 it lost nearly $32 million from its operating budget. It also has had ever increasing pension obligations due to investments not meeting financial projections made when generous pension tiers were put in place. ConFire’s problems were further compounded by a “depooling” of their retirement fund from the rest of Contra Costa County’s retirement system. This was done to ensure that each agency paid its own fair share toward pensions.
The Proposed Parcel Tax
ConFire Chief Darryl Louder has stated that unless the November parcel tax passes, ConFire will have to close seven (7) fire stations in July 2013. The district will be $8 million in the red and response times will dramatically increase. The following year another three stations will have to close as ConFire will be short $18 million. When the tax was first presented to the Board of Supervisors in June of this year, the projections showed that even with a $75 tax, the district would be shutting down stations within three years. Now, the Chief’s projections are rosier and show that ConFire will be able to get by with the tax, but when it sunsets in seven years, the district will once again be in the red by $11 million.
Proponents of the parcel tax argue that many people have had the assessed values of their homes and their corresponding property taxes drop dramatically over the past several years, so they should be able to afford an additional $75. They also note that this is like an insurance policy – for just $6.25 a month ($75 a year), you are ensuring that a first responder will arrive on the scene quickly when you need one. Finally, they highlight the fact that homeowners’ insurance rates may go up if fire stations are closed.
My Perspective on the Tax and a Long-Term Solution to ConFire’s Budget Problems
As a newly elected County Supervisor and member of ConFire’s Board of Directors, I feel a serious responsibility to manage our resources wisely. I have always believed that government needs to live within its means and find new models of delivering services if the old ones are not sustainable. I consistently support local parcel taxes and bond measures when there is a direct nexus to the benefit received by the community, where the measure is fiscally sound, and when it provides an ongoing benefit. I am not finding that test met here.
ConFire’s pensions are not sustainable. Meaningful pension reform is difficult to achieve, but we need to begin somewhere. Retirement for existing employees and retirees is deemed vested by the California Supreme Court and cannot be modified unless agreed to by the entire bargaining unit. At the very least, we need to have a new, less costly pension tier such as a 3% at 55 for new hires. The financial benefit won’t be seen immediately, but it’s a start.
We also need to continue to look at how we provide services. The district has tried traditional cost savings measures including salary reductions, increasing employee contributions to benefits, furloughs, controlling staff overtime, and deferring capital purchases and improvements, but it hasn’t been enough. With over 70% of ConFire’s calls being for medical services, and where an ambulance from a private company is also dispatched, we need to make a greater effort to look at other models of delivery. It is imperative that we show taxpayers that we have a plan in place to not only provide emergency services but to do so cost-effectively.
I care deeply about keeping our communities safe, and have never questioned the integrity and skills of ConFire’s firefighters. They are a well-trained and dedicated group of men and women who willingly work each day to protect others. I want to help them keep their jobs and not close fire stations. If, prior to November 6, we have a new pension tier agreed to and either a new model for delivering services or a cost savings plan to make the district’s budget sustainable beyond the sunset of the parcel tax, I will support this measure.
Candace Andersen was elected to the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors on June 5, 2012 and sworn in on June 26, 2012 to begin serving her first term as the District 2 County Supervisor.
Candace served as the Mayor of the Town of Danville for two terms. Candace also served on the Morgan Hill City Council in the early 1990′s. She is an attorney licensed to practice law in California and Hawaii. She began her legal career as a Prosecuting Attorney in her hometown of Honolulu and also worked as a civil practitioner with a law firm in Morgan Hill. Candace put her legal career on hold to serve the community and raise her family. She and her husband, attorney Philip M. Andersen, have been married for 28 years and are the parents of six children ranging in age from 14 to 26, and have two daughters-in-law and a son-in-law.
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