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 .
We 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.