New Fire Revenues; Where will They Come From?

First published June 8, 2011

Monday night the Board of Directors for the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) met for their monthly board meeting. Before much could be discussed Board President Erick Stonebarger, resigned as President effective end of the meeting. He will remain a member of the Board. The discussion quickly turned to “where do we go now?”

Chief Henderson presented a brief review of where we have been: At the May 6 Board meeting, the Board declined to approve a draft engineer’s report related to the imposition of a fire services suppression property assessment after hearing testimony about the limited amounts of funding that the assessment would raise, a lack of community support, concerns about the approach taken by the draft report and suggestions that the Board consider other types of revenue enhancement measures.

A review of revenue followed; 96 % of the District’s revenue is from property taxes and these revenues have declined 22.8% from three years ago and there is not much hope for a recovery of assessed values in the next few years. This revenue source will provide an estimated $8,500,000. The District’s preliminary Operating Budget for fiscal year 2011-12 is $11,111,500. In order to balance the 2011-2012 budget the District will need to borrow $2,650,000 from reserves leaving a reserve fund balance of $742,124. If nothing is done is to increase revenues prior to the 2012-2013 budget year the current service level provided by the district will have to be modified drastically. That led to the next discussion; where will new revenues come from?

State law provides three options for increasing revenue that are available to the District under appropriate circumstances: adoption of a special tax, levy of a special assessment, or the establishment of user fees for cost recovery of certain services.

With the actions taken last month the special assessment option will no longer be considered. The District already collects user fees for cost recovery for auto accidents. These fees net the District approximately $100,000 a year. The next option, and only remaining one, is a parcel tax. To address the parcel tax option the Board appointed a three member subcommittee to create service models and cost options. They will bring this information to a special Board meeting scheduled for June 27.

Who’s on that Fire Engine?

Recently there have been editorials, letters to the editor and blog posting against Measure S. One of the arguments against Measure S is that the fire district is too top heavy. A claim, much like the rest, that is not supported with any information, just a blanket statement. The writers generally don’t disclose their specific background and experience in the field of firefighting. So here are some facts about the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District’s staff.

Current staffing model 48 personnel
4 stations staffed with 3 personnel
2 stations staffed with 2 personnel (Bethel Island and Knightsen)
16 Captains
15 Engineers
12 Firefighters
43 total and backfill 5 positions with overtime

The team members of the each 3-man Engine Companies in the ECCFPD are charged with one, big job: put a fire out as quickly and safely as possible. Be it from outside the building or inside with the flames, each person on that engine has specific responsibilities that require a unique level of training. Each 3-man Engine Company in our District is composed of a Fire Captain, an Engineer and a Firefighter. Regardless of the title all three will eventually play an important role at any emergency.

The Fire Captain is the senior officer at the station and is generally responsible for their station. On the scene of a fire, it’s the Captain that evaluates the situation, locates the fire, then decides which door, hallway, or stairway should be used to reach the fire with the proper amount of hose, establishes a command and draws up a plan of attack. Once the Battalion Chief arrives on scene, the Captain can then fulfill the fourth member position and become a backup firefighter, to institute the 2-in and 2-out safety rule. “The first five minutes determines the next five hours.”

The primary responsibility of the Engineer at the station is the maintenance of the fire engine and all tools and equipment carried on that fire engine. Once the alarm is sounded they are in charge of driving the fire engine and ensuring the safe delivery of the personnel and equipment to a reported fire or emergency and the delivery of water to the operating firefighting company.

The firefighter occupies one of the most challenging and dangerous positions during the fire. Their duties routinely take them in close proximity to the fire and require a determined and experienced member. The firefighter stretches the first length of hose with the nozzle attached to the location determined by the Captain. Meanwhile the backup firefighter, the fourth on the scene, (could be the Captain, a Battalion Chief or a firefighter from the second company on the scene) moves toward the fire behind the initial firefighter providing physical as well as moral support. The major function of the back-up position is to flake out the hose line while waiting for water and to facilitate the hose lines advance once it is charged.

Two stations in the District work with 2-man Engine Companies. They consist of a Fire Captain and an Engineer. Their roles in this situation are similar to a 3-man company. The Captain prepares the site, the Engineer drives and prepares the hose lines. But, they must wait for a second unit to arrive to begin appling water to the fire. Safety rules dictate a 2-in and 2-out policy.

It generally takes 5 engine companies to suppress a structural fire. As each unit arrives they all basically become firefighters assisting to put the fire out as safely and quickly as possible

Based on training and experience everyone arriving to a fire can be a firefighter, but not everyone can be a captain or an engineer. So, when that 3 or 2 man engine company roles up to your house in the middle of the night who do you hope is on that engine?

A yes vote on Measure S will not only ensure that the current service model stays in place, put every engine that leaves a fire station will have a 3-man engine company arriving on scene first and one member of this 3-man team will be a paramedic.

Tuesday’s Dark Cloud Over Antioch

Tuesday afternoon’s fire at Blue Star Tires, located at 2665 Antioch Pittsburg Highway, covered northwest Antioch with a plume of black smoke. The first engine arrived on the scene and discovered that the closest hydrant was over 1600 feet away, at the corner of Verne Roberts Circle and the Highway in front of the Goodwill store. Three engines, each with 700 feet of supply hose, were needed just to supply water.

Soon after they began pumping water firefighters realized that they were losing water pressure. In this case a lot of water was needed to support the big streams required for fire suppression. To increase water pressure they used an engine in a relay pump operation to move the water through the supply hose at the appropriate levels to put the fire out.

The four alarm fire brought engines from all over East County, including two from the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD), responding to an auto aid request from the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (CCCFPD), one from Oakley the another from Brentwood. After nearly six hours on the scene the last engine left. Great job by all those firefighters on scene from both districts.

Throughout the fire districts in Contra Costa there is an excellent system of Auto Aid and Mutual Aid. In an Auto Aid scenario the dispatcher automatically dispatches the closest available engine regardless of fire district boundaries. Residents of western Oakley calling for service may have an engine from the station 81 in Antioch arrive on the scene first. The Antioch station is located within the boundaries of the CCCFPD and Oakley is served by the ECCFPD.

Mutual aid is assistance that is dispatched, upon request, by the responding fire department. Usually it is requested upon arrival at the scene.

In 2011 CCCFPD provided Auto-Aid to the ECCFPD 322 times – they responded with a total of 413 units (some calls require multiple units per call).

ECCFPD provided Auto-Aid to CCFPD 171 times – with the District responding with 198 units.

If Measure S fails can ECCFPD live up to its contractual obligations in the Auto Aid/Mutual Aid agreement? Will CCCFPD stop providing Auto Aid support for ECCFPD? Something to ponder when you head to the polls on June 5th.

The Day After

Ribbon Cutting for new Fire Station 93 in Oakley

Saturday’s ribbon cutting was a milestone event for the City of Oakley and the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District. Although it was the third station built in Oakley it was the first since Oakley became a City. It is also the first station built since the control of the district changed from the County to local officials.

Station 93 was originally built in 1963 and underwent a major renovation in 1970s. Oakley’s population was around 2000 and 93 was staffed with a volunteer firefighting force. As the transition was made from a volunteer force to a full time force there became a glaring question in the station. Where do I bunk? Staffing full time fire fighters requires a place to house them that includes sleeping quarters and accommodations for spending lengthy periods of time. Station No. 93 did not have those capabilities. Additional modifications were made to the station to provide these amenities. Even with these new features the station lacked other essential infrastructure to handle the increasingly technological advances of today’s world. The City of Oakley had the funding, land prices and construction costs were down, so it was decided by the Oakley City Council that it was time to build a new station.

Firefighters got the keys to the new station on August 17 and immediately began moving into the new facility.

The first call was run out of the station on August 18 at 12:17pm.

For all it was lacking there was one part of the old station that found its way to this new station. It weights over 5,000 lbs. and had to be broken into three pieces for the move.  A plaque honoring all those who that have served the community as fire fighters dating back to the late 1930’s until the formation of the current district. There is one name on the list that deserves additional recognition and thanks. Albert Romiti, the land where the new station sits was purchased from the long time Oakley resident’s family. Albert lived his entire life at the location of the new station.

Additional thanks to the design-build team –

From Ascent Builders – Mark Shope, Robert Boucher, Lynol Calderon

GRA Architecture – Gary Roberts

District consultant – Bill Hess

Battalion Chief Jake Gonzalez, and

Oakley City Manager – Bryan Montgomery

Location: 530 O’Hara Ave, Oakley Ca

Construction History
Construction Contract Awarded June 22, 2010
Operational August 18, 2011
Opening Ceremony August 27, 2011

Cost $3,150,000. The station was paid for by fees the County and the City of Oakley has assessed on new homes built in Oakley. These Fire Facilities fees can only be used for capital projects and cannot be used for operations. Neither the City of Oakley nor the Fire District provided funding for the new station.

Features
9,000 square feet

  • Apparatus Bay – 4,500 sq feet
  • Living Quarters – 3,000 sq feet
  • Emergency Operation Center – 1,500 sq ft

Class A Fire Resistant Dormer and Cupola Metal Roof
Complete Fire Sprinkler System
Three Drive-Through Apparatus Bays
Diesel Exhaust Removal System
125 Kilowatt Emergency Power Generator with a built in 500 Gallon Diesel Tank
500 Gallon Diesel and Gasoline Fuel Tank
Medical Decontamination Room
Vented and Sealed Turn-Out System
Exterior Decontamination Station for Firefighter’s Clothing

ECCFPD Update – The Next Step

On Monday, July 11, the Board of Directors for the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) met to consider the next steps for the District in regards to funding and organizational options. As a way of background – the District was created in 2002 by consolidating three smaller fire districts, the Oakley-Knightsen, Bethel Island and East Diablo. Included in the ECCFPD are the cities of Oakley, Brentwood, the unincorporated communities of Bethel Island, Byron, Discovery Bay, Knightsen, Marsh Creek/Morgan Territory, and other areas of unincorporated Contra Costa, 238 square miles. At the time ECCFPD operated eight staffed fire stations, which are staffed 24 hours a day and contracts with CAL FIRE for continual operation of its Sunshine station on Marsh Creek Road. In June of 2010 two stations were closed due to budget constraints, station 57 in Byron and station 58 in Discovery Bay.

The District was initially governed by the County Board of Supervisor. They transferred this responsibility to a locally controlled board in February of 2010. This board consists of four representatives from Brentwood, three from Oakley and two from the county. By the law the number of representatives from each entity is determined by population. An executive board was also created to assist the directors; this board consists of City Managers from Oakley and Brentwood, a county representative, the Fire Chief and legal counsel.

Revenue sources include property taxes (94 percent), intergovernmental revenues (two percent), Oakley fees collected in Summer Lakes (one percent), and miscellaneous sources (three percent). The District’s share of property tax revenues is seven percent in Brentwood, five percent in Oakley, and nine percent on average in unincorporated areas; by comparison, the average fire district property tax share countywide ranges from 12 to 16 percent in cities (served by fire districts) and 13 percent in unincorporated areas. Revenue generation has been a systemic weakness since the district was created.

The District’s preliminary Operating Budget for fiscal year 2011-12 is $11,111,500. The revenue is estimated to be $8,500,000 with $2,650,000 in reserves to cover the expenses. The District projected a fund balance of $742,124 in June 2012; however this figure has been reduced by over $300,000 with the new assessed property value figures released by the County recently.

In search of additional revenues the District has looked at fees. When a fee is assessed the money collected has to equal the cost of the service provided. The District cannot charge fees for its essential fire suppression services; however there are some costs that are recoverable. Starting the process involves a Fee Study to identify the cost of providing service and ensure the fees do not exceed those costs. Then a billing and collection system would have to be created. Estimated revenue is $80,000 to $100,000 per year base on emergency responses.

A benefit assessment fee was looked at next. Since the passage of Proposition 218, the levy of such assessments must be supported by a detailed engineer’s report prepared by a registered professional engineer certified by the State. The engineer’s report must determine the proportional special benefit to each property from the assessment funded services. Some properties, such as vacant sites, receive very little or no special benefit from fire suppression services and probably could not be assessed. The engineer’s report needs to carefully provide ample detail and support for the special benefits conferred by fire suppression services, which could be shown in terms of response times, type of services rendered, or other factors.

The Board declined to approve a draft engineer’s report related to the imposition of a fire services suppression property assessment after hearing testimony about the limited amounts of funding that the assessment would raise, a lack of community support, concerns about the approach taken by the draft report and ultimately, in light of recent court decisions, whether or not the assessment could withstand legal challenges.     

For the next step in the process the Board appointed an Ad Hoc Committee consisting of Board members from Oakley, Brentwood and the County. Representatives from United Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County Local 1230 were also asked to participate as well as the public. The committee was charged with:

  1. Service models: The Committee is reviewing different service models with the numbers of stations and staffing levels for the current needs and the needs of the District in the future. Staff is preparing costing for each of the models.
  2. Service providers: The Committee is researching whether a larger agency such as Contra Costa County Fire Protection District could provide improved service for the District with regional resources.
  3. Additional source of revenue: fee or tax and amount options based on the first two tasks.
  4. Election dates and voter turnout: The Committee is reviewing past election data and voter turnout within the District to help forecast the best time to go out to the voters with a parcel tax.

The Committee’s goal is to continue to meet on a weekly basis and provide updates to the full Board of Directors at the monthly meeting.

In May, the Brentwood City Council, for reasons not yet firmly articulated, directed their City staff to prepare the necessary paperwork to apply to LAFCO for Brentwood to leave the District and organize a City-only fire department. They call this their option B. They plan to pursue Option A, which is to find additional revenue to save the district and Option B simultaneously.

Last but not least some of the residents from the Marsh Creek/Morgan Territory area have contacted LAFCO and San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District regarding their options to leave the District and instead receive fire service from San Ramon.

For Monday’s Board meeting, the directors came down from the dais and gathered around tables set in a circle for a more informal work session. The public was invited to participate in the discussion. Directors Pat Anderson and Steve Barr presented a plan that would establish a baseline service level, a core level of service, and enhanced level of service. After a rather contentious and boisterous exchange of ideas a consensus on what these levels would be was reached. The base level will be what services can be provided at the current revenue level, $8 to 8.5 million. The core level will be where we are now. To maintain this level of service there will have to be additional revenue, either an assessment fee or tax. The enhanced level of service will be left up to individual communities to determine. The concept of coverage zones was introduced. Multiple coverage zones could be applied across the District providing an enhanced level of service for those zones that choose to pay for it. For instance if Oakley and Brentwood, combined as a coverage zone, and the residents voted to raise additional revenue to pay for paramedics, a fourth firefighter on an engine or any other enhanced level of service, those funds would be returned to the community and applied only to the stations located in that community.

The executive committee has been assigned the task of developing multiple funding and staffing scenarios for the base and core levels. The Ad Hoc committee will continue their work and report out at the August meeting.

Brentwood Throws a Match at the Fire District

On Tuesday night the Brentwood City Council directed staff to prepare the necessary paperwork and City Council resolutions for an application to Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) to allow Brentwood to withdraw from the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD). This process was initiated following ECCFPD’s decision not to approve an Engineers Report supporting a benefit assessment fee proposed to generate additional funds for the district.

If as anticipated Brentwood continues with this action it likely would involve four steps and take 12 to 18 months to complete. The first step is a formal application to LAFCo for withdrawal.

The second step involves a tax sharing agreement with the County. State Revenue and Taxation Code Section 99 provides that in any jurisdictional change the County Board of Supervisors is responsible for a negotiating property tax exchange to adjust the allocation of property tax revenue for local agencies whose service area or service responsibilities would be altered.

ECCFPD FY 2009-10 Tax Revenue

Revenue projections for property tax for the next fiscal year remain the same as this year. The estimated total revenue is $8,491,564. The ECCPFD is projected to start the next fiscal year with a fund balance of $3,341,380.To maintain the current service model for the next fiscal year, expenditures are estimated at $11,208,199. To continue to provide this level of service, the ECCFPD would need to use $2,716,635 of its Fund Balance.

With the County millions of dollars in debt can they really let Brentwood walk away from the district and take nearly 50% of the funding? I would say probably not without demanding a heavy toll on Brentwood.

In step three the request returns to LAFCo where the appropriate studies are conducted to determine the feasibility of allowing Brentwood to leave. The fourth step, which may or may not be necessary, probably includes a parcel tax increase to cover the dollars stripped by the County in the tax sharing agreement.

If Brentwood is able to leave; what’s next – contract with Con Fire, contract with Cal Fire or another fire service provider, create their own fire department? Where does this leave Oakley, Discovery Bay, Knightsen, Bethel Island, Bryon and everyone else? Does Oakley follow Brentwood down the LAFCo path or does it seek to stop Brentwood? Can any compromises be reached to save ECCFPD? Can Brentwood be coaxed back it to the fold or have the bridges been burnt? The challenges are many but there is still time to explore all possible solutions in order to provide cost effective fire services for Far East County.

A Snapshot of the ECCFPD Fiscal Year 2011-2012 Operating Budget

At Monday night’s Fire Board meeting one agenda item was a quick look at budget numbers. The current fiscal year ends on June 30th. Staff presented the board with three scenarios, the best, the worst and the probable.

The District is projected to start the next fiscal year with a reserve of $3,341,380.

Revenue projections for property tax next fiscal year are to remain the same as this year. This has been a risky assumption in the past few years with dropping property values. The County’s Assessor, Gus Kramer, has a history of aggressively lowering assessed values. This assessment is generally released after June 30. The assumption being made for the next fiscal year is that the assessed value will remain same as the current fiscal year. Nearly 100% of revenues come from property taxes. The estimated total revenue, including the RDA pass through and CFD Funds, is $8,491,564.

The 2010-2011 staffing model is 6 stations; 4 stations staffed with 3 Firefighters and 2 stations staffed with 2 Firefighters, with a total of 48 Suppression Personnel, Administrative Staff of 5 and the Cal-Fire contract. To maintain the current service model for the next fiscal year, expenditures are estimated at $11,208,199. To provide this service model, the District would need to use $2,716,635 of its reserves, leaving $624,745 in reserve. Providing fire services beyond the 2011 – 2012 fiscal year, without a revenue enhancement, becomes problematic. This leads us to scenario number two – the worst.

The worst case scenario assumes that there are no additional revenues beyond the projected $8,491,564 and that staffing and services are based solely on revenues, the reserve is not touched. This balanced budget approach would require significant cuts in both manpower and stations. This service model would only support 3 stations staffed with 3 Firefighters, with a total of 29 Suppression Personnel and an Administrative Staff of 5. This staffing model would match the projected revenue of $8,491,564. This service level would cancel the Cal-Fire contract, increase response times, increase the insurance rating, and rely on Auto/Mutual aide to provide day-to-day emergency responses.

There is no way the district could survive in this scenario. Each station would be required to cover 85 square miles, distances to vast to provide appropriate coverage. Many locations within the district could see ISO ratings rise to level 9 or 10 and an accompanying 30-45 percent increase in insurance premiums. A level 10 rating is achieved when a building is located further than 5 miles from a fire station.

The final scenario includes additional revenue in the form of a Fire Suppression Benefit Assessment. If the assessment, a weighted $96, is approved by the voting property owners it could provide up to $4,000,000 of new annual revenue to the District. In this scenario a staffing model could be provided as; 6 stations, all staffed with 3 Firefighters, with a total of 54 Suppression Personnel, Administrative Staff of 7 and the Cal-Fire contract. This enhanced staffing model expenditures are estimated at $12,045,558, leaving $446,006 available for other uses or adding to the Fund Balance. This scenario would obviously providing funding beyond the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

There is lots a work ahead in the coming months. Join us the first Monday of each month at Oakley City Hall, City Council Chambers, 3231 Main Street, Oakley.