OAKLEY -- Property owners in far East Contra Costa will decide this fall whether they are willing to pay more to preserve what's left of their fire services, although at this point even a "yes" vote won't prevent a temporary station closure.
East Contra Costa Fire District board members unanimously agreed Monday to pursue a benefit assessment that would generate just over $4 million annually for the distressed agency, which will have to close two of its remaining five stations before year's end if the proposal fails.
A larger-than-normal crowd turned out for the proceedings, where district residents who advocated for an assessment outnumbered those opposing it.
"I need my fire department saving not only my son but other children like him," said Oakley's Meghan Bell, who volunteers on behalf of special-needs youngsters.
But some opponents complained that the assessment does nothing to fix the root causes of the district's chronic underfunding, which was blamed on post-Proposition 13's inequitable rules for property tax revenue apportionment along with a precipitous drop in the same since the collapse of the housing market.
"If you get this money it doesn't solve your problem. It's a Band-Aid," Discovery Bay resident Walter MacVittie said.
Some of the local politicians who turned out to support the assessment agreed but argued that something is better than nothing when it comes to protecting their constituents.
The fire district will mail ballots to owners of the 43,769 parcels within its boundaries Aug. 22. The proposal's outcome will be determined Oct. 6, when votes will be counted in public.
If a majority approves, the assessment would appear on tax rolls in 2015-16 and remain in effect for five years.
But even before voters weigh in, the district will have to shutter a station in downtown Brentwood on Sept. 1 at least temporarily.
Since February, 10 firefighters have taken more stable jobs elsewhere, another is about to quit, and two individuals are on long-term leaves. But with the federal grant that's been keeping the district afloat set to expire in November, district officials say that East Contra Costa Fire can't afford to continue shelling out the amount of overtime pay needed to have those who remain pick up the slack.
The district will hire more firefighters to reopen Station 54 if the assessment succeeds; if it doesn't, the fire board will be forced to close a second station in Knightsen Dec. 1.
The assessment would vary from parcel to parcel depending on a number of variables, including the size of the property and its distance from a station and fire hydrant, all factors that determine the degree of "benefit" the land receives from fire services.
Consultants have determined that 96 percent of the parcels that have single-family homes on them will be assessed at less than $113 annually. Most of the remaining parcels with improvements on them will have assessments under $250. Very large properties and those with gas stations on them where the volume of flammable liquids poses a particular fire hazard would pay more than $250.
Residents who have their parcel number can find out exactly how much the fire district is asking them to pay by contacting its business office, which has logs listing the proposed benefit assessment for each plot of land.
The engineer's report, a document detailing how the consultants calculated the assessments, will be available online later this week at www.eccfpd.org by clicking on the "What's New" tab.
Reach Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.