OAKLEY -- East Contra Costa Fire District is wagering $125,000 in an effort to keep its fire stations open.
The agency's board members agreed this week to spend that sum on a consulting firm that will help them decide the size of a proposed parcel tax as well as deliver the facts about the district's precarious financial health directly to residents' mailboxes.
Board President Joel Bryant voiced the only objections in the 6-1 vote. Another board member was absent and Director Cheryl Morgan abstained.
The San Francisco company, which specializes in crafting ballot measures for local governments, will consider alternate ways of structuring the tax. Instead of assessing a uniform fee on each of the 43,769 parcels in the district, for example, it might recommend a tax that varies depending on whether there's a single-family home, apartments or a business on the property, fire Chief Hugh Henderson said.
In response to those who question the need for consultants, he notes that the district's administration consists of just him and a secretary, who don't have the time to handle the design, wording, printing and mailing of multiple fliers.
Although the district is struggling to keep its five remaining stations open -- money troubles have forced the closure of three others since summer 2010 -- Henderson says $125,000 won't cover the salary and benefits for even one rank-and-file firefighter.
This push to get a parcel measure approved is the second go-round for the district, which spent $120,000 on consultant fees in an unsuccessful attempt two years ago.
The $197 annual tax was considerably higher than what the board is considering this time, however, because it was intended to reopen a station as well as add a paramedic to each engine, Henderson said.
By contrast, this proposed tax will be used only to preserve the status quo, he said.
"We're not asking to become bigger. We're trying to maintain the bare minimum amount of service," Henderson said.
Exactly how much the tax will be and how long it will remain in effect might not be decided until Feb. 24, when the board will vote whether to put the measure on the June ballot.
In nailing down the dollar amount, directors are taking into consideration the additional revenue that rising property values will generate as well as projected increases in the number of parcels in the district.
Although their focus now is on a parcel tax, district officials have explored other ways to alleviate, if not solve, the agency's woes.
One possibility is working with cities and the county to establish additional community facilities districts.
Although there's only one subdivision in East Contra Costa Fire's service area where homeowners are paying fees for fire protection in addition to property taxes, Henderson said the board might pursue similar arrangements as new developments are built.
Other approaches haven't panned out.
East Contra Costa Fire contacted half a dozen fire agencies last year to see if any of them would be willing to provide services on its behalf only to discover that such a contract actually would be more costly, Henderson said.
Some critics have argued that the district should bring back volunteer firefighters to supplement its manpower, but directors decided that the obstacles to laypersons responding quickly in emergencies coupled with the cost of insuring and training them made this idea impractical.
Meanwhile, East Contra Costa Fire is making ends meet using a two-year federal grant, which is filling a $3.2 million gap between revenue and expenses this fiscal year.
The district's 48 firefighters have both gained and lost ground since the money was awarded. Although they received a 2.5 percent pay hike in July -- their first in six years -- they now are paying more for smaller retirement benefits.
Before July 1, the district was paying 4.5 percent of employees' share in addition to its own contribution toward pension costs; now firefighters must pay their full share, which amounts to roughly $1,000 to $2,000 per month depending on how old they were when they were hired, Henderson said.
Monthly salaries range from $4,190 for an entry-level firefighter to $7,343 for a seasoned battalion chief.
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.