Providing fire services is not a function of the city of Oakley or Brentwood and, for that matter, almost all of cities in Contra Costa. Richmond, El Cerrito and Pinole are the only cities providing that service. There are seven fire protection districts in the county. The largest is Contra Costa County Fire Protection District which includes these cities and unincorporated areas: Antioch, Clayton, Concord, Lafayette, Martinez, Pittsburg, Pleasant Hill, San Pablo, Walnut Creek, Bay Point, Clyde, El Sobrante, Pacheco, Port Chicago.
The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) was formed in 2002 when the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors consolidated the East Diablo Fire District, Oakley-Knightsen Fire District and Bethel Island Fire District. ECCFPD serves the cities of Brentwood and Oakley, as well as the unincorporated areas of Bethel Island, Byron, Discovery Bay, Knightsen, and Marsh Creek-Morgan Territory. Responsible for an area of some 250 square miles, the District is the second largest fire service in the County. ECCFPD was a dependent special district and was governed by the five-member county Board of Supervisors.
After lengthy negotiations between the County and the cities of Oakley and Brentwood governance of the ECCFPD was turned over to a new governing board in February of 2010. Under authority of State Code (California Health and Safety Code § 13837), each entity appointed the appropriate number of board members. The new Board included 9 members: 4 from Brentwood, 3 from Oakley and 2 from the County. Under this appointed structure, the City Councils or Board of Supervisors appointed directors according to each entity’s proportionate share of population.
The ECCFPD is a special district that manages and governs fire services within its area. Special districts in California provide over 50 types of diverse services including, water, mosquito abatement, irrigation, fire protection, libraries, cemeteries, sanitation, lighting, parks and recreation, street maintenance, airports, harbors, police protection, trash collection, and many others. Some Special districts serve a single purpose, such as sewage treatment. Others address multiple areas of service, such as community service districts, which can offer up to 15 types of services.
Special districts enjoy many of the same governing powers as cities and counties. They can enter into contracts, employ workers, and acquire real property through purchase or eminent domain. They can also issue debt, impose taxes, levy assessments, charge fees for their services and like other forms of government can sue and be sued.
The ECCFPD is funded primarily through property taxes. This funding source is woefully inadequate. The primary reason for the governance change was that the cities of Oakley and Brentwood thought that with local governance, as opposed to County control, it would be easier to address the funding problem. After three failed attempts to increase revenues this thought was painfully inaccurate. Each attempt was flawed in its own way and these flaws lead to defeat.
What needs to happen now:
- The leadership void needs to be filled and tomorrows leaders need to come from the within the Fire District.
- Oakley and Brentwood need to stop appointing members of their City Council to the board and instead appoint members from our community who are free from the internal politics and put the Fire District first.
- The elected Fire Board is coming but we can’t wait 18 months to determine what needs to happen next. The board must start immediately creating a long-term solution to the myriad of problems currently confronting the Fire District.
- Change doesn’t happen by itself. Any long term solution must involve the public to succeed. Steps must be taken by the Fire Board to educate and empower supporters so they will better understand the complexities and challenges facing the organization.
- The public has lost trust in the message coming from both the cities and the Fire District. Relationships must be reestablished and/or developed to ensure that a clear and comprehensive message is being delivered from a single source, ECCFPD.
- ECV has proposed a funding solution that involves reallocating property taxes. The plan proposed by ECV would ask the taxing entities to voluntarily shift 5.2% over to the Fire District, about $7.8 million, incrementally over a 4 year period. Nearly 70% of the shift in property taxes would come from the K-12 schools and community colleges serving East Contra Costa. Administrators from the school district have all publicly stated that they will not support this plan. Last week Discovery Bay rescinded its previous support joining 5 other special districts that had recently stated they were against the plan. ECV needs to set up meetings with each taxing agency and appeal to their elected directors. If ECV can’t convince a sufficient number of agencies to follow their plan, then other options must be explored and pursued.
Neither the cities or county can continue to provide long term funding to support the Fire District, it is not within our current revenue structure, and such funding is not sustainable. The Fire District needs to develop a strategic plan that involves community residents and a long-term solution.