OAKLEY -- East Contra Costa Fire District directors have scrapped the idea of putting a parcel tax before voters in June, leaving the cash-strapped agency's future in limbo until at least this fall.
The board made the decision Monday in a 5-4 vote after only a tiny fraction of residents responded to an informal survey the district had conducted to gauge support for a proposed five-year, $98 annual parcel tax.
East Contra Costa Fire recently mailed brochures to the 41,299 households in its service area explaining the need for additional money to keep its five remaining stations open and asking recipients to prioritize various aspects of its operations from response times to fighting grass fires.
As of Friday, 863 people had weighed in -- not quite 2 percent of those polled.
The consultant who is running the district's public education outreach considered the numbers "not bad" compared with those of typical direct-mail campaigns, but Director Greg Cooper called them "terrible" and Director Cheryl Morgan questioned whether a mailer had gone to every address.
Board members also had different takes on what the survey results meant. Ronald Johansen and Joe Young thought they were a sign that the district's efforts to communicate the gravity of its troubles are paying off, Young noting that the vast majority of those who responded indicated that they are willing to pay $98 more per year to maintain the current level of fire service.
But Director Bob Kenny wasn't so sure, voicing his discouragement upon discovering during a visit to the post office how many people had tossed the mailers directly in the trash.
District consultant Charles Heath acknowledged that people tend to treat these kind of communications as junk mail, and also pointed out that the survey wasn't scientific like the one the firefighters' union hired a polling firm to conduct in January.
Those results revealed that only 54 percent of the voters likely to go to the polls in June were willing to pay more for fire services -- far short of the two-thirds approval the tax needs to pass.
The unpromising forecast had the board deeply divided. Some wanted to wait until November to hold an election, unwilling to spend the estimated $100,000 it would cost to put the matter on the ballot, until they had spent more time and personal contact with voters in getting the word out.
East Contra Costa Fire has been saying for months that it will have to close two stations if it can't find another funding source before the federal grant that's been keeping it afloat runs out in November.
But others objected to a delay, saying that the parcel tax proposal would get lost amid all the other ballot measures competing for voters' attention during the gubernatorial election this fall.
Young conceded it will be difficult to get the tax passed regardless of when an election is held, but he urged his colleagues to move forward now.
Even if by some chance district residents in November agree to pay more, East Contra Costa Fire wouldn't see any of that revenue until the following December, he said.
Unless it could get a loan to bridge the funding gap for a year, the agency still would be forced to close at least one station, Young said.
"A November vote is not a vote for a five-station model," he said.
In the end, however, the contingent preferring to postpone action prevailed.
Director Stephen Smith said he wants to revisit the idea of consolidating with the Contra Costa County Fire District, and Young asked Chief Hugh Henderson to start planning for station closures so the district is prepared for that eventuality in November.
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.