HERCULES -- The Rodeo-Hercules Fire District board approved an $82-a-year assessment on most properties Wednesday night, moments after finding that a weighted majority of owners had supported the plan in a mail-in election concluded last month.
But the assessment, calculated to raise close to $1 million a year, faces a possible legal challenge from taxpayer groups who say it violates the California Constitution by passing itself off as conferring a special rather than a general benefit.
"Fire protection services are not eligible for assessment financing under Proposition 218" -- known as the Right to Vote on Taxes Act of 1996 -- J. Ryan Cogdill, litigation attorney for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, wrote in a letter handed to the board Wednesday by Alex Aliferis, executive director of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association.
Fire board member Bill Prather, the lone dissenter in the 4-1 vote to impose the assessment, characterized it as "a run around Proposition 13," adding that a fire service tax should be subject to a popular vote requiring a two-thirds majority.
"This was a scam," Prather said.
Vince Wells, president of the firefighters union, Local 1230, lauded the board's action.
"We're looking forward to the new revenue," Wells said late Wednesday. "We're looking forward to reopening Station 75," the Rodeo fire station that has been shuttered since May 2012 to save money.
Board member Beth Bartke thanked Local 1230 for handing out the board's information leaflets.
"They did that while they were off-duty," added board member John Mills.
The benefit assessment is supposed to bolster fire protection and emergency medical response as well as contribute to reopening the Rodeo station, one of two in the district -- the other is in Hercules.
Single-family houses would pay $82 a year; condos and apartments, $46.93; 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 Phillips 66 petroleum refinery in Rodeo would pay about $45,500, according to an estimate by SCI Consulting Group, of Fairfield, for 29 parcels it owns in the district. Besides the Rodeo refinery, Phillips 66 owns a coke plant along Highway 4 outside Hercules as well as vacant land and other buffer properties, including a ranch.
It was not known Wednesday how Phillips 66 voted. Refinery spokesman Mark Hughes did not disclose the vote to this newspaper although he said in April, "We greatly appreciate the fire protection services provided to the community by our local fire district, and we consider them a valued community partner."
Fire Chief Charles Hanley said he would provide the information as soon as it is available, which he said should be soon although he could not say Wednesday exactly when that would be. The ballots were counted by Carol Keane & Associates of Walnut Creek.
In a May 30 report to the fire district made public Wednesday, Keane said 2,752 ballots were received, out of 10,250 that were mailed, a return rate of 26.85 percent.
On a weighted basis, in proportion to the amount each property stood to pay, the yes-votes outnumbered the no-votes, 56.82 percent to 43.18 percent, according to Keane's report.
Aliferis said his organization would defer any decision how to proceed pending a public records request he filed at Wednesday's board meeting, which seeks further information on the vote.
Later in the meeting, the board approved a preliminary 2014-15 operating budget of $6.55 million, up from $4.9 million in the current fiscal year; the difference is due mostly to the addition next fiscal year of $1.25 million, or the first half of a two-year, federal SAFER grant of almost $2.5 million. The initials stand for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response.
Even so, there is a projected deficit of $540,000 in the 2014-15 budget, according to Hanley.
That budget provides for increasing the district's workforce by nine positions, to 24. The current staffing is 15, including the chief, a battalion chief, and an administrative services officer.
Rodeo-Hercules, like other fire districts in the area, has come under criticism for paying what some perceive as lavish salaries and benefits. In 2012, according to statistics compiled by this newspaper, eight firefighters, not counting the chief, each made more than $190,000 in gross pay, including salary plus overtime.
Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760. Follow him at Twitter.com/tomlochner.