MARTINEZ -- Contra Costa's largest fire district on Tuesday placed a parcel tax on the November ballot after hearing warnings about the crumbling state of emergency services in neighboring East Contra Costa, where a similar tax was recently rejected.
The Contra Costa Fire Protection District board voted 4-1 to send the $75-a-year parcel tax to voters on Nov. 6. In doing so, the fire district attempts to do what the East Contra Costa County Fire Protection District could not.
In June, the East Contra Costa parcel tax of $197 -- almost triple the annual rate of ConFire's tax proposal -- fell far short of voter approval, getting 43 percent "yes" votes when it needed a two-thirds majority.
On Tuesday, both supporters and opponents of ConFire's tax measure used East County's failed tax to further their arguments. Opponents said June's vote was validation that voters won't stomach any more taxes, while supporters warned of the aftermath in East County, where there have been layoffs and the closure of three of six fire stations.
Gil Guerrero, a fire engineer in East Contra Costa, told the board a before-and-after story. Guerrero said before the station closures, fire crews were able to respond within a minute to a woman with cardiac arrest. After the closures, a response to the same area came from a station five minutes further away, he said.
"We weren't able to get to that patient in time," Guerrero said.
Supervisor Mary Piepho read an excerpt from a story in a local newspaper about a Bethel Island small business owner who said her monthly fire insurance rate doubled after the tax failed in June.
"This is life and death," said Piepho. "This is small business being affected, this is people's lives being affected and your pocketbook being affected."
Without the tax, ConFire Chief Daryl Louder said he would have to close seven fire stations in July 2013 and three more in 2014. The district has 28 stations, serving 304 square miles throughout nine cities and several unincorporated areas in the central part of the county.
Under the tax measure, owners of single-family houses and condos would pay $75 a year. Industrial and commercial landowners would pay $75 per quarter-acre. Agricultural and vacant property owners would pay $37.50 per parcel, while apartment owners would pay $37.50 per unit.
If approved, the tax would go into effect July 1, 2013 and end June 30, 2020. It requires two-thirds approval.
"It seems to me, for the price of one cup of coffee per week that we can keep fire stations open and provide quick emergency response, that that's a pretty good deal," Supervisor John Gioia said.
ConFire estimates property tax receipts, which account for 90 percent of district revenue, have dropped by $32 million since 2008. Meanwhile, pension costs have skyrocketed, with the fire district's pension bill this year at $26 million and rising.
"Your rise in pension costs are the reason you have no money to deliver services," said resident Wendy Lack, who opposes the tax measure. "With this tax measure, the district offers voters an ultimatum."
Tax opponents Joyce Ellis and Matt Heavey said the district needs to reform its pension system before asking taxpayers to dip into their pockets. Ellis called supporter's talking points "scare tactics," a term officials and firefighters objected to publicly.
ConFire union President Vincent Wells joined Louder in telling the board negotiators are discussing pension reform for new hires and are optimistic an agreement can be reached soon.
Supervisor Candace Andersen, the lone dissenter in the 4-1 vote, said she could not support a parcel tax without a long-term financial plan detailing how the district would sustain itself. Andersen said fire district figures show that even if the tax passes, the district will be in the red by fiscal year 2015-16.
"I would rather, as horrible as it sounds, put no measure before voters than a flawed measure that is destined to fail," said Andersen.
Contact David DeBolt at 925-943-8048. Follow him at Twitter.com/daviddebolt.