Fire Service Myth Three: SAFER Grants will change everything

Last week I discussed two “myths” related to Fire Protection Services.  In this post, let’s look at our third “myth” as it relates to Contra Costa in 2014 and, in many ways, California in general.

SAFER grants are FEMA grants for “Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response.”  They are the given by one bankrupt government entity that can print money to another bankrupt government entity who can’t print money.  They SAFER Grants are, in effect, a dangerous substitution for responsible government.

SAFER grants currently keep many fire districts and departments operating in the Bay Area in an era of reduced funding and increasing calls for more cuts, to critical services even while pension debt continues to pile up.

Multiple Contra Costa and Alameda County Fire districts/departments have  received SAFER grants. In the past month alone,

- Confire (most of Contra Costa County) received $9.6 million

- Rodeo-Hercules got $2.5 million

- Alameda County Fire Department received $4.2 million.

Last year the Pinole Fire Department accepted a $1.24 million grant and Moraga-Orinda received a grant for 1.15 million.

In 2012, East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD )started this trend with a $7.8 million grant that will end in November of this year.

One would think (hope?) that someone other than the news media would notice there is a trend here; maybe someone with the authority, responsibility and/or power to fix the core problem?

SAFER grants can only be used to hire or rehire fire fighters and/or retain current fire fighters.  The district/department that obtains a SAFER grant must also retain all other fire fighters on the job at the time the grant is obtained (that is, they cannot lay off any fire fighters during the period of the grant).  The purpose of a SAFER grant is to keep a community safe with full staffing during a period of financial duress.

The myth of SAFER grants is that mo’ money (i.e. more debt) will change practically every aspect of the culture or operation of the fire departments that obtain the grants.

When ConFire was recently awarded its grant, Fire Chief Jeff Carman was quoted in the Contra Costa Times when he said SAFER grants are “a way to bridge the present and the future.” He sprinkled even more pixie dust when he noted that “the district has set up an in-house strategic planning committee to study ConFire’s business plan to look for efficiencies and other revenue sources, and ways to be more innovative.”

This sunshine must be template stuff found in the Fire Chief for Dummies handbook. Every SAFER grant has evoked the same or similar quote from equally clueless District executives .

east county fire eccfpdWe need only look at ECCFPD as that District approaches the end of its SAFER grant to see how reality plays out.  There are no additional revenue sources, at least none that come close to closing a $4 million shortfall in a $12 million budget.  25%. And the district board and management are not even close to finding that bridge to the future or  “innovative” ways to close the budget shortfall.

Hell, taxpayers would happily accept a non-innovative way that did not require a tax increase.  But, as always, the district is now seeking a parcel tax, the same strategy that failed in the prior election cycle.

And, by the way, if ECCFPD did find those mythical “additional revenue sources,” it is funding that still comes from taxpayer pockets. It doesn’t matter if the money comes out of taxpayers’ right pocket and some comes out of their left pocket, it is still taxpayer money.

One additional note to Chief Carman; If you are looking for ways to “bridge the present and the future,” I suggest you review the Fitch Report just submitted to the County at a cost of $185,000.  Or, you might read the LAFCO Municipal Services Review of 2009 that made a series of “policy options” (bureaucrat speak for recommendations), including “annexation of Brentwood and Oakley to ConFire, consolidation of the entire East Contra Costa FPD area with ConFire, and consolidation of all fire providers within the county are options.” Innovate that.

But taxpayers beware that these references are only playing around the edges of solving the structural financial crises at the heart of the fire services decline throughout the County.  You will never get to a solution without retirement benefit solutions, pension and health care reform. An honest and grownup discussion about how to provide effective fire service in Contra Costa County without breaking the bank is the first step for a return to solvency.

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  1. Chuck says

    I’m patiently waiting so I can put some anchovies on it. Next time I will not be so offended if you capitalize Cheese.

    • says

      Thanks for being patient Mr. Cheese. A funeral, a birthday and the State Republican Convention called this past week/weekend and I need to finish number 4 before taking the family to Disneyland. The suspense is overwhelming, huh?

  2. Bruce R. Peterson, Lafayette says

    I hear” I don’t want to get involved” so often, it sounds like one word. If the politicians can’t raise more money on a Fire Tax, they will merely change the name to “School Tax” or “Road Tax”. Then all of the voting sheep will do as they are told & Vote YES!..

  3. John says

    Check with public records and you might find it over 10 million in unfunded liability. The reality is that we are the payers to the district and employees. Common sense is currently questioned at this point. Still something must change soon.

  4. Chuck says

    I find it telling that other blog sites have broken down to petty name calling on this subject. They have broken down resulting in cannibalism .Maybe that is one other reason that truly looking at the pension cost is a trigger to a much bigger issue with the fire finances. In the end common sense will prevail or man would not exist.

    • says

      Chuck, the question is what is “common sense”. For example, East Contra Costa Fire Protection District has an unfunded liability of more that $2 million dollars. They and the employees think taxpayers should pay this, while taxpayers that I have talked to say the district and employees should pay this. I will discuss this soon in another posting.

  5. John says

    Government mentality has always been spend it or lose it. In this situation there needs to be different groups such as ordinary working non public worker citizens doing the negotiating of wages. They will always chase their tails because of the revolving door theory. Politician negotiates wages through subordinates, Unions donate to politicians, both cry not enough money or else to the public. Then when they get the money they need they immediately spend it on unions to get that financial backing for reelection. This results in competing agencies saying the other one pays more so we need to increase ours. There should actually be a law with a format and system in place for all publicly paid agencies that would limit salary increases in all aspects tied to a table such as cost of living, etc. Any additional salary increases for a specific agency above and beyond the table would need voter approval. This will not happen because the public has lost control of their government and are afraid to take it back..This is why I look very closely at any new tax and what is behind it. Not saying I vote no on all taxes but most of them as they are a waste and encourage more waste.

    • says

      The “table” you are looking for is called “elected officials” and we have completely lost control. You get what/who you elect or, in the case of unions, who you pay for.

  6. Pete Conrad says

    Does anyone really believe that if the tax revenue hadn’t been diverted to the RDA’s over the years, which was not an unknown, that anything would really be different now? The fire districts would have just had that much more money to use for increased wages and benefits, and the unfunded liabilities would just be that much larger. There is no incentive for them to act in a more fiscally prudent manner than the RDA’s did. In fact, in the public sector the incentive is to always spend whatever funds you can get and to always ask for more. Temporary grants and matching funds just exacerbate the problem, especially when they come with strings attached.

  7. Chuck says

    Until the pension issue is dealt with to match normal average pensions at normal average ages, fire districts will continue to spend beyond their means. The unions continue to run the show for now.This will change soon if they do not start considering the consequences of what they allowed to get out of control. Pensions mainly and some wages are the root cause here. That consequence is no more union control. People are just plain tired of forking out money. Especially when threatened.

  8. Wine Rep says

    The RDA’s were eliminated by moon beam, but the irresponsible RDA’s saw the end coming and ran up the credit card to the max, i.e. – bond debt and long term financing to the hilt. Con Fire should be receiving several millions dollars per year for Pittsburg, alone, instead they received something like $30,000 due to the debt racked up by the bureaucrats. Even David Twa addresses this in the last Board of Sups meeting, and the 2009 LAFCO Municipal Service Review talks in depth about the huge money diversions. The equivalent is you having a budget for your family expecting 5,000 per month, and your uncle comes in, and takes $2500 out of your account before you ever see it. Everyone wants to see Con Fire be sustainable and stand on their own without the need for additional funding, but no one recognizes the tens, if not hundreds of millions that the RDA’s have diverted out of their base tax dollars for decades.

    • says

      Well, you got me on this one “winerep” I will take your word for it. Pittsburg has been particularly diligent at spending money on redevelopment and their downtown shows the effect. And David Twa is my government manager hero.

      One related issue with fire Districts is that everyone wants it fixed, but then when you talk about creating one fire district in the county, everyone is good with it… long as they get their own fire station. Did you go to any town halls when ConFire was holding them for the Fitch report? Most questions from people (not fire fighters) was “will i get a fire station” or “you will leave my station open, right”. In at least one town hall in Brentwood several people were adamant that all ECCFPD had to do to be viable was cut every other city out of the District except their city, Brentwood……

  9. Wine Rep says

    Harold, I do agree that there are too many layers of “Fire Chiefs” with all of these little fire departments. Why does Moraga/Orinda, Pinole, Rodeo/Hercules, East Contra Costa, and Con Fire all need head Fire Chief’s that will tap the county for 150 – 200K Pensions and salaries. One Chief could easily run all of those fire districts and save hundreds of thousands, if not millions to the county and pension fund.
    There is no silver bullet in the chamber, but having the redevelopment agencies steal funds that should go to Fire and Special Districts is not helping matters at all. Irresponsible redevelopment agencies like Pittsburg, the County, and San Pablo have helped nail additional nails in the Con Fire coffin.

    • says

      winerep, the Governor killed all the redevelopment agencies when he became Governor and is winding it all down with “successor agencies” in the cities. A number of cities, like Brentwood, are suing the State over certain conditions related to the elimination of Redevelopment agencies. And the Governor and State Legislature are recreating redevelopment agencies in their own ugly image at a State level with new “Infrastructure Financing Districts” (see SB-33) and, regional “sustainable communities” legislation (SB-1). It’s a whole new ugly world out there in the redevelopment arena and Fire districts are the least of our concerns…..