OAKLEY -- The East Contra Costa Fire District board voted Tuesday to reissue mail-in ballots to approximately 44,000 property owners after discovering a mistake in data the district received from outside agencies.
The mistake was found after one of the district's board members noticed that the assessment amount listed on his ballot was not what he had thought it would be. After district staff investigated further it was determined that the data the district had received from outside agencies was not up-to-date.
"It is important that all property owners be assessed the correct amount, so we will be taking a close look at all of the data to ensure complete accuracy," Chief Hugh Henderson said.
The district found that about 10,000 property owners were sent a lower assessment amount on their ballots than what they would actually have to pay. The majority of those parcels are in southwest Brentwood, but other areas were also affected.
After the assessments for those 10,000 properties are changed to the correct amounts, the district's other approximately 34,000 property owners should see a reduction in their assessments because the amounts are calculated based on the total assessment, which would generate about $4 million annually.
Consultants previously 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.
The data that needs to be updated includes fire hydrant locations in newly developed areas.
"I don't know what we could have done differently," said board President Joel Bryant, who expressed his anger and embarrassment over the situation. "We can only control what we have direct control of."
In a two-part vote the board decided to suspend the first assessment vote and then directed staff to retrieve the updated data to send out new ballots. The district hopes the new ballots can be mailed in six to eight weeks.
On Wednesday, the United Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County responded to the discovery of the error and decision to restart the balloting process.
"This is very disappointing to the firefighters who serve this community as well as its residents," union president Vince Wells said in a news release. "It is another devastating blow to the morale of our firefighters and those who have worked hard to get the message out to the community regarding the assessment and its importance."
Wells said the union supports the board's decision to send out new ballots to ensure accuracy, but noted that the consequences could be "devastating" if the assessment is rejected as a result.
Henderson said that if the benefit assessment is approved by a majority of property owners, it would fund the cost of keeping five stations open for five years, as well as hiring and training of additional personnel. It would also allow Station 54 in Brentwood to reopen, reducing fire emergency response time for most residents and businesses in East County.
The board will meet again on Sept. 8 to discuss the costs to reprint the ballots and determine a timeline for future station closures. It has also asked the District's counsel if it can pursue restitution from the agencies that relayed the incorrect data.
The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Oakley City Council Chambers, 3231 Main St., Oakley.