After three consecutive nights of conducting town hall meetings in Pittsburg, Lafayette, and Clayton, Jim Broman, was remarkably composed. As the lead consultant for the highly regarded Fitch & Associates whom the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors hired to advise them about the troubled Contra Costa County Consolidated Fire Protection District (ConFire).Broman was put thru the ringer by those who attended these events.
ConFire is responsible for fire protection and emergency medical services (EMS) throughout the county. It responds to some 59,000 medical calls and 22,500 fire related incidents per year for 600,000 residents who often face life threatening situations.
Broman, a retired fire chief with over 40 years experience in the field admitted, “ConFire is one of the most challenging consultant jobs I have dealt with as there are multiple layers of revenue, demographics, and specific needs to be addressed.” This was most apparent at the meetings he hosted where comments from concerned, frustrated, and often angry people expressing their disdain over the deterioration of fire and EMS services.
To put things into perspective, the ConFire budget which currently stands at $93.8 million, took a big hit five years ago with the economic recession that resulted in less income because of the huge drop in property tax revenues. This along with the State of California taking away funds earmarked for the counties to balance their own budgets.
To further exasperate the situation, lower returns from investments made to fund pensions of retired fire fighters created huge multi-million dollar deficits. This perfect storm left ConFire’s finances in shambles.
As a result of these economic setbacks, Confire has had to use its reserves which are currently down to $20 million, to keep essential services in place. It is estimated, even with the infusion of several million dollars more from various sources, the District’s rainy day fund will evaporate by 2016. With this dismal outlook, ConFire employees took pay cuts from between 10% to 20%, staffing levels were reduced, and four stations have been temporarily closed.
In order to avoid what many people have described as catastrophic cuts in service, Measure Q, a $75.00 Parcel Tax, was put on the ballot in 2012. The measure which required a two-thirds majority for passage, was only able to garner 55% of the vote and thus failed.
Various reasons were given for Measure Q’s defeat including (1) the reluctance of voters to impose any new taxes during an economic downturn; (2) concern that even with new revenues, the pension fund deficit would not be fixed; (3) a weak political campaign by proponents of Measure Q to impress voters of the importance to increase funding for ConFire, and (4) the difficulty of reaching the two-thirds vote threshold needed to impose new taxes.
Faced with this crisis situation, Contra Costa Board of Supervisors brought in the consultants to make the fire district more efficient and effective in the years to come. Developing these ideas into a five-year plan they hope to:
1. Fit ConFire’s operations within revenue levels depending on their budget restrictions.
2. Consider strategies to mitigate risks for both property and employees with reduced staffing levels.
3. Lessen response times by placing personnel where it is most needed.
4. Consider alternative deployment systems for fire fighters as opposed to the 24 hour shifts they currently work in order to place personal when and where they are most needed
5. Optimize services for medical first responders with those used primarily for dealing with fires.
Along with these goals is the importance to re-establish the public’s trust in ConFire which would prove to be helpful should another ballot measure to raise revenues be put before voters. It is also important for the County Supervisors to make sure their pension fund deficit situation is rectified before asking tax payers to open up their wallets once again.
An important part of the consultants work seems to be the best use of ConFire staff depending on the time when most incidents are likely to take place. Per the attached graph, there are periods in the day and night times that are busier than others.
While this data is important, a fire fighter at the Lafayette meeting pointed out “the severity of a fire or emergency varies from incident to incident so number’s don’t tell the whole story.” His comments are especially true in rural areas such as Clayton, Alamo, or Moraga where there is less population density but a much higher fire danger exists compared with more populated cities.
Another factor to be dealt with is with the deterioration of ConFire’s services, the slower will be their response time to fight fires at their beginning stages. If this were to occur, property damages would naturally go up. It is feared that if the fire district’s ratings are lowered, this will result in more costly insurance policies for home owners and business.
While the performance of ConFire has been emphasised in the consultants study, increasing revenue seems to be the elephant in the closet so to speak. Chief Broman mentioned the possibility of charging Confire’s clients and insurance companies for some of the tasks they perform. There is also talk about individual municipalities subsidizing ConFire in their districts as has occurred in supporting local public schools in wealthier communities.
These concepts have proven difficult to gain acceptance as emergency services have historically been covered by property taxes. Although none of these proposals to reduce ConFire’s red ink are not very popular, any and all alternative’s are being put on the table to be considered. This is how desperate things are for the beleaguered fire fighting/EMS agency.
While ConFire’s fiscal dilemma is a highly charged issue, it does not appear to be a Democrat vs Republican kind of conflict which characterizes the California political scene. Economic woes such as this are non-partisan as there is no one who can be directly blamed.
Current members of the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors who are trying to fix the ConFire mess were not in office when lucrative pay/benefit packages were bestowed on employees by their predecessors, many of whom currently reside in the State Legislature.
The bottom line is that none of this matters as Contra Costa’s Fire Prevention apparatus and emergency services network is in bad need of a makeover. Although one fire fighter complained that he would prefer “to keep one fire station open for six months rather than pay for a consultants study,” it is apparent that the services of Fitch & Associates are badly needed.
It should prove to be very interesting to read their final report next year and see what steps the Board of Supervisors will take to get the ConFire train wreck back on course.