To follow up the series on the Four Myths of Fire Service Districts, see below a follow-up with some actions taken by Fire Service Districts in Contra Costa County that are perfect examples of what I addressed in my post, The Fouth Myth of Fire Services. Since the situation is fluid and government and its “agents” are sadly predictable, additional posts in the future will continue reporting back on the actions taken that are affecting our lives and the people and/or organizations taking those actions.
Fire Service Districts “Find” other “Revenue Sources” means raising taxes
First, if you remember, I discussed that many government agencies, especially fire districts, are now looking for additional funding sources for their services, rather than fixing what is broken about their service delivery. If there is one place that government is relentless it is finding “other revenue sources”.
Well, two fire districts, the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District and the Rodeo-Hercules Fire District have both dropped to new lows: both are proposing new “benefit assessment districts” to finance their path to solvency. Why a “benefit assessment district” rather than a new property tax?
Both districts are convinced, after polling citizens, that they could not pass a parcel tax. A parcel tax requires a two-thirds vote of residents, while a “benefit assessment district” only requires a majority vote. According to local news reports, ECCFPD is still considering the idea of a parcel tax and is also considering consolidating with the Contra costa Fire Protection District (ConFire) or entering into a joint powers agreement with the cities of Brentwood and Oakley (sounds interesting and has possibilities), leaving Discovery Bay, Byron, Knightsen, and Bethel Island without fire protection services. Sounds like another meeting with the Chief, Hugh Henderson, or several Board members is in order; more to come on this.
In the Rodeo-Hercules District, benefit assessment district ballots have been mailed to homeowners; the ballots must be returned by May 14. Single-family homes would pay $82 per year, condos and apartments $46.93; stores would pay $60.30 per one-fifth acre. The Phillips 66 refinery would pay $45,000 per year for the 29 parcels it owns within the District.
The District’s budget is currently $5 million annually; the new assessment district would bring in approximately $1 million each year.
Interestingly enough, five cities in San Luis Obispo County recently voted down a benefit assessment district for fire protection services within their county.
Voters in the five cities rejected the Five Cities Fire Authority’s proposal just four years after the district was created to save taxpayers money. The proposed District would have raised $1 million per year by assessing owners of single family homes $66 per year. The proposal failed 40.3% to 59.6%. The new funding was requested, the district said, to maintain current staffing levels, create a reserve fund to replace fire engines and equipment and improve dispatch services. This is bureaucrat speak for our pension costs are going up, taking more of our normal revenue, so rather than tell you that, we will tell you we need funds for operating costs, leaving out any mention of paying pension costs first. Fire Chief Michael Hubert was quoted in local newspapers as saying “Obviously I am disappointed. We will provide the best services we can with the resources we have. I thought it (the election) might be a little closer than that,” adding “I think things are probably still tough out there for people”.
The City of San Ramon
But the award for the most egregious attempt to “find other revenues” falls to the City of San Ramon. Their “creative” idea: create a new “communities facility district” focused on homeowners, especially new home owners; to create an additional tax above the normal property taxes that property owners must already pay.
The purpose of this new fund: applying the new revenue to the ordinary daily functions of the San Ramon city government so that current revenues can be diverted to pay for, as one city document explains “inflationary increases in employee benefits costs”.
The new tax is so outrageous the city has been sued by Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) on behalf of the Building Industry Association of the Bay (BIA). Why do Pacific Legal Foundation and BIA consider the city’s actions unjust and illegal? The lawsuit stipulates that the state’s Mello-Roos Act, which governs the creation of special property tax districts, requires that new taxes of this nature must fund new services for the people that are paying the tax, not fund ongoing operations. PLF also alleges the city’s proposal violates the state Constitution; that is, Proposition 218 enacted by voters in 1996 dictates that if new taxes are earmarked for general services, as in this case, they must be approved by the electorate.
Now, back to Fire District behaviors that cause us all to cringe.
The Moraga-Orinda Fire district reached a tentative agreement with its fire fighters this month. The agreement came a little more than a month after the district agreed to enter mediation and restart contract negotiations with the United Professional Fire Fighters of Contra Costa County, Local 1230.
The district, with outstanding retiree health care debt of approximately $24.1 million (2009, last year numbers are available), including a $2.6 million contribution this year that it is “deferring”, agreed to a contract with employees. The employees will take a 3.5% cut effective July 1, followed by pay increases starting July 1, 2015 through 2017 of 1%, 4%, 3%, 4% and 3% or a 15% increase over the next 3 years, approximately half of which is contingent on if (unknown to the public) revenue numbers are met. The district will also continue its current level of funding for health care, with employees picking up any increases.
On a positive note, the District is also restructuring its services, deploying single-role paramedics who will replace a dozen firefighter-paramedics projected to leave the district through retirement or attrition. The district estimates the new hires will initially increase overtime costs, then save approximately $1.2 million annually, or as I wrote in Myth Four, not enough to make the District “whole” for years.
Good luck, citizens of Moraga-Orinda, you will need it.
The role of elected officials and management employees
Then there were the statements in my fourth myth posting where I discussed the role elected officials and government “management employees”. I wrote that elected officials were engaged in a bribe-extortion relationship with their unions; this relationship, I wrote, results in unions’ contributions to “elected” campaigns which ultimately results in higher pay, benefits, pensions and cozy work rules for the contributing unions. Management employees in the public sector, I continued, are different than in the private sector in that they are also frequently unionized themselves, sit on the same side of the bargaining table as the unions, and recognize that whatever they give the unions in raises, pensions and benefits they will get a short time later.
A Contra Costa Times editorial of April 15 points out this is exactly what happened with BART negotiations. BART paid two consultants/negotiators during the strike (Thomas Hock and Bruce Conheim) $568,000 to negotiate the contract with the unions and recently hired another consultant for $225,000 to determine what went wrong with the negotiations.
Really, they need a paid consultant to tell them what went wrong? Here is your answer; send me the consultant fee, please: Look in the mirror.
The Times points out that as soon as the hired negotiators left town, BART management and directors increased their offer to the unions by 48%. The Board then gave its top managers the same raise they had negotiated with the unions. Or, as the Times wrote “top managers were effectively at the bargaining table for their own raises”.
As for the Board members, Director James Fang walked the picket line with the unions while the negotiations were on-going. The BART Directors as a whole, the Times wrote “simply caved to the unions and meddling local politicians, selling out their constituents to benefit labor backers who fund their campaigns.
This is, of course, not the last we will hear of this behavior. Hopefully the vote at the Five Cities Fire Authority is the strengthening of a movement to corral exorbitant costs in our government services. Recent news reports of the City of San Bernardino fight with CalPERS as it attempts to come out of bankruptcy further suggest that there are more government officials who consider residents and taxpayers as their constituents, not employees and their unions. Stay tuned.