OAKLEY -- The clock is ticking down on fire district officials here who are trying to decide the features of a parcel tax they'll start pitching to voters in earnest next month.

During a 3 ½-hour discussion Monday, directors of the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District debated how long the as-yet-undefined tax should last, whether that figure should reflect raises for firefighters and be adjusted annually to offset inflation and if any residents should be exempt.

The financially troubled district will hold seven public presentations in January -- one in each of the communities it serves -- to explain what's at stake: If it can't drum up additional revenue by the time a federal grant expires in November 2014, the agency predicts that it will be forced to close two of its five fire stations.

Last year's resounding defeat of a similar tax measure was uppermost on directors' minds as they debated how best to convey the urgency of the need to residents, many of whom board President Joel Bryant said had no idea that the agency was even in trouble when he talked to them during his campaign for Measure S.

Following that ballot measure's failure, East Contra Costa Fire closed three stations and laid off 15 firefighters. The district received a reprieve a few months later in the form of a two-year, $7.8 million grant.

Although it can apply for another grant, whatever money it received would have to be spent on additional hires; he's simply trying to maintain current staffing levels, Chief Hugh Henderson said after the meeting.

This time around directors acknowledged that the district must be more aggressive in its public outreach; it's not enough to hold informational meetings and hope that voters will come -- they also will be taking their message to specific groups such as service clubs, scouting groups and parent-teacher associations.

Bryant suggested that each board member use his or her Facebook page to explain the tax, while Director Cheryl Morgan recommended taking advantage of any holiday events they'll be attending over the next several weeks to get the word out in person.

"They'll pay if they know (what the tax is for)," said Vince Wells, union president of United Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County, Local 1230.

Board Vice President Ronald Johansen ¿also persuaded his colleagues to consider hiring a consultant to guide them through the process of getting the tax on the ballot in time for the June election.

"We shouldn't be limiting ourselves in any way because this is about the survival of the district," he said.

As for the features of the proposed parcel tax, directors agreed that it should remain in effect from five to seven years. Those on the district's finance committee now will crunch numbers to determine whether it's feasible to have cost-of-living increases built into the tax. Some board members thought structuring the tax this way would be more appealing to voters because the district wouldn't have to charge as much at the outset if it's guaranteed an increase in subsequent years.

The committee also will decide whether to recommend a per-parcel amount that would cover raises for firefighters, who currently earn significantly less than their counterparts elsewhere in the county. A rank-and-file firefighter with East Contra Costa Fire Protection District earns up to $4,625 per month as compared with one in Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, who tops out at $7,210 per month -- a difference of nearly 56 percent.

Although Director Stephen Smith thought the district should give Summer Lake residents a break on the tax, most of the board heeded Morgan's warning that making an exception for one group of people would create a troublesome precedent.

The Oakley subdivision is in a community facilities district that's dedicated to supporting fire services and, as such, homeowners there pay a special tax that generates about $133,000 a year for the fire agency.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.