Antioch council votes unanimously to back fire tax

By James Ott

United Professional Fire Fighters of Contra Costa County President Vince Wells came to the city council meeting on Tuesday, October 23, 2012 asking them to support Measure Q – a proposed parcel tax for residents within the Contra Costa Fire Protection District. The council voted unanimously to endorse the tax.

Measure Q seeks to help raise money for the firefighter’s district that has lost about $32 million since the 2008 housing market collapse, according to Wells.

If approved, Measure Q will levy a $75 parcel tax per year for owners of single-family homes. It would cost apartment owners $37.50 per unit and any commercial or industrial landowners would need to plunk down $300 per acre, or $75 per quarter-acre. And agricultural or vacant property owners would pay $37.50 per parcel.

The proposed tax would take effect from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2020 and is estimated to create $16.8 million a year for the county fire district.

Measure Q will need a two-thirds supermajority vote to pass.

There are 28 fire stations in the Contra Costa Fire Protection District and four of those are in Antioch. Wells said that the lack of money is forcing the fire district to close up to10 fire stations in the next two years, with the first closure coming as soon as January, 2013.

As for now, it isn’t known if any fire stations in Antioch are scheduled to be shuttered. Those that are scheduled to close will be notified in December.

Wells also said that lack of funding has cost the district 81 firefighters. Those that remain have taken a 10 percent pay cut and have also made concession to their benefits and pensions.

“I personally pay 26 percent of my paycheck toward my pension every month,” said Wells.

Like fireman Vince Wells, proponents of Measure Q say that the money is sorely needed, even in the rough economic times. Supporters point out that Contra Costa Fire Protection District is among the 14 largest metropolitan fire agencies in the state and they say that without additional money, response times to fires and other emergencies could be impacted.

Most people would only pay the $75-per-year parcel tax which adds up to only $1.44 a week.

Opponents of the measure such as “Halfway to Concord” Editor Bill Gram-Reefer accused Supervisors and union leaders of ignoring serious pension reform and restructuring that could have saved money without having to take from taxpayers.

Contra Costa Taxpayers Association President Kris Hunt said that the fire district has lived beyond its means for too long and thinks Measure Q is only a temporary fix.

And the Contra Costa Times editorial board went so far as to call the measure “political blackmail” for the district’s plan to close almost two-thirds of it’s fire stations if the voters don’t pass it.

It is worth noting that on the June 5, 2012 ballot, the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District proposed a similar parcel tax called Measure S. The $197-a-year tax proposal was soundly defeated when 56.2% of voters rejected it.

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8 Comments to “Antioch council votes unanimously to back fire tax”

  1. karl says:

    no, no, and no
    there are no proposals, ideas, suggestions, or anything coming from the upff in regards of what they will do to reduce cost.

    i just copy/ paste the following out of the editors article:

    “Opponents of the measure such as “Halfway to Concord” Editor Bill Gram-Reefer accused Supervisors and union leaders of ignoring serious pension reform and restructuring that could have saved money without having to take from taxpayers.

    Contra Costa Taxpayers Association President Kris Hunt said that the fire district has lived beyond its means for too long and thinks Measure Q is only a temporary fix.

    And the Contra Costa Times editorial board went so far as to call the measure “political blackmail” for the district’s plan to close almost two-thirds of it’s fire stations if the voters don’t pass it.”

  2. James Marchetti says:

    This is yet another tax to cover the long-term fiscal irresponsibility of the fire district. Homeowners and apartment owners should not be penalized with a tax. Additionally, it is rare that a tax with an expiration date actually ever expires, so I do not believe that this will ever go away.

    While I deeply appreciate the service of firefighters and their willingness to the work they chose to do, I abhor unions. I’ve served my country in the Navy and after that service I have held IT jobs. Twice since I left the Navy I was offered positions that I was required to join the union in order to get the job. I declined both because of my belief about unions and that they have outlasted the good they once served in the early 20th century.

    Additionally, I really don’t care how much Mr. Wells contributes to his pension. What he does not tell us is how much is mandatory vs. voluntary. I’d be interested in that factoid Mr. Wells.
    That is not at all relevant when one considers that the problem is not one of firefighters taking a financial hit, but more so the administrators fiscal responsibility. Why are we talking about this now when we’ve been suffering through this financial disaster for 4 years?

    Maybe I missed a memo or two about this, but it still bothers me that homeowners, whose home values in Antioch have crashed are now being penalized. WHY?

    Talk about rubbing salt into our wounds…

    I would welcome seeing a plan that shows exactly how they plan to operate once the tax is proposed to go away – what will the district do then? Show me the money I say!!

    – James Marchetti
    Antioch, CA

  3. Kris Hunt says:

    This measure is really about the cost of pensions and retiree health care. The firefighters can talk about how much they pay (and ignore the raises they received to cover the increase), but the costs for pensions, for repaying the debt and interest the district resorted to because of pensions, and retiree healthcare have overwhelmed the distict.

  4. Vincent Wells says:

    Contra Costa County Fire Protection District is funded 100% by property taxes. The Fire District is a “Special District” which means it does not receive revenue from sales tax or other revenue that the County receives. The District is not part of the “County General Fund”. The connection to the County is that the County Board of Supervisors serves a separate role as the Fire Board of Directors for the District.
    Since 2008, the Fire District has lost a significant amount of revenue due to the lowering of property value which lowered the tax amount collected. The City of Antioch and other Cities that are within the District have all been impacted by the revenue lost via the drop in assessed value of property as well. Unfortunately the Fire District’s revenue is not diverse, so the increase in sales or other revenue sources don’t help the district. Again, due to this drop in assessed value, the District lost over 32 million dollars since 2008. What is interesting is that other tax measures are endorsed by the Times and other sources, for the reason stated above, but they ignore these facts when it comes to the Fire District. Cuts have been made to staffing, pay, benefits, and services have been cut since 2008. We have gone from 30 engine companies on duty per day, down to 28. If Measure Q is not successful, we will lose 4 stations (36 fire fighter positions) in January with up to ten more stations (90 fire fighters) by 2014. That is what Measure Q is trying to prevent. It has nothing to do with pension reform or not.
    Pension costs have went up due to the market crash. We have not received new pension benefits since 2002. The Governor has passed a pension reform bill that will change the age of retirement eligibility from 50 to 57 and will change the pension formula as well. This and other changes will lower the amount of final compensation going forward. This will have a significant impact on future pension costs and lower the cost per employee for fire fighters hired after 2013.
    There are “vested rights” issues that must be addressed and will be. This matter will be decided in several court cases across the state, as it relates to current employees and changes to promised benefits. Voting no on Measure Q does not change any of this. The tax percentages paid by property owners will remain the same. Furthermore, they haven’t changed in this District, since 1978 (Prop 13). As you review your bill, you will see that there are no tax changes for fire services on your tax bill. The District’s tax rate has been the same since 1978. Compare your cable, phone, garbage, or electricity bill from 1978 as compared to now. As all of those services have improved over that period of time, so has the fire services provided. We now have rope rescue, confined space rescue, water rescue, trench rescue, vehicle extrication training, hazardous material capabilities, terrorist training, biological warfare training and equipment, as well as paramedic services and advanced medical capabilities. Measure Q is on the ballot to make up for lost revenue and is only for 7 years. If it fails, the same level of taxes will be paid, but for fewer resources. In my opinion, and the opinion of the Fire Chief and fire service experts, the service will be grossly inadequate.

    There are those on this thread and in the community, who only discuss one side of the issue and don’t discuss the overall impact of Measure Q failing. For the sake of having adequate emergency services in the community, I hope there are more voters out there looking at the entire situation. Currently, when you call 911 you can expect a fire engine at your door or business within an average of 6 minutes and 30 seconds. A fire doubles in size in two minutes and the brain can survive between 4 to 6 minutes without oxygen or adequate CPR.
    There are 28 fire stations in the district, each staffed with 3 fire fighters per day. That is a total of 84 fire fighters on duty per day with over 300 square miles to cover and for over 600,000 people, with over 41,000 911 calls to answer. The loss of 4 more stations would bring us down to 72 fire fighters on duty per day in 24 stations. If we close 5 more in 2014, the number of fire fighters on duty per day would be 57 in 19 stations. When you close fire stations it doesn’t reduce the number of 911 calls, nor does it reduce the square miles of the district, or reduce the number of people protected. It doesn’t reduce the hazards in the community, which are refineries, railways, highways, high rises, or other community risk. It doesn’t reduce the weather related issues or the power of “mother nature”. It reduces the number of resources available to respond to mitigate the situation. Ask those that recommend a no vote on Measure Q, how this part of the problem will be solved. What would we do in the meantime while pension is being reformed? Or will the economy turn around on November 7 if Measure Q fails. Throughout this campaign, it has come across from the “no on Q side” as; the voters must teach someone a lesson. Who me? I made a difference in multiple lives my last few shifts at work, what did I do wrong? The ones, who will pay the most, will be those who need emergency services after we close fire stations. It will take a long time to make up a 17 million dollar deficit no matter what the alternative plan is.
    Measure Q is a temporary tax that is $75.00 per parcel. It expires in 7 years. The economy has taken a significant hit since the “great depression” of 2008. The Fire District has not been exempt. Measures have been taken to lower costs and will be continued as we get through these tough times. Closing fire stations and reducing resources available to protect the community is not the answer. Vote Yes on Q to keep your stations open. Attend meetings for the next 7 years to assure your money is spent wisely. A no Vote would be devastating and will cost a lot more. Yes on Q… http://www.ProtectCCfire.com for more info.
    Vince Wells, Contra Costa Fire Captain Paramedic

    • Publisher says:

      Vince,
      Thank you for your comments.

      Yes, we understand that property taxes have decreased, due to the economic downturn, reducing the revenue to the fire district. Those of us who pay the taxes have experienced the loss of our jobs and homes and/or reduction in income.

      What amount or percentage of a pay cut have the firefighters in ConFire taken to reduce the expenses of the district since 2008? That’s what people are questioning and it hasn’t been clear. It is my understanding that the firefighters agreed to pay a good portion toward their pension, but that was back-filled with a pay raise to cover the amount they’re paying. Is that true?

      If the firefighters haven’t made a sacrifice and agreed to a pay cut, then the taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to make another sacrifice by increasing our taxes, until they have. Sorry, but that’s the just the new reality. We all need to be in this together. But it seems that some government workers aren’t willing to share in the pain of the new, tough economy, such as the Antioch Police officers, which I’ve written about. They claimed a deferral in pay raises was a sacrifice. That’s not how the taxpaying public sees it.

      Forget what the governor is doing and your “vested rights.” That’s like a child saying to his/her parents “but you promised” when they can no longer to give the child something they promised because they can no longer afford it. Things change. Economic circumstances change. We all have to respond accordingly as mature adults. Besides firefighters get to retire earlier than most all workers in the private sector, and can still earn an income doing something else after they retire. We the people want to know what the firefighters are willing to do to share in our sacrifice, at least temporarily, until the economy turns around.

      The other thing to consider is, since the vast majority of calls for service are not for fighting fires, but for other things such as car accidents, etc., perhaps now is the time to restructure who goes to what calls, including what equipment is used, in order to reduce the costs. Are there less expensive, and just as qualified safety employees, such as EMT’s and/or paramedics who can respond to all the non-fire calls? Does a non-burning car accident require the response of a big-rig fire truck?

      If the district is given more money with the passage of Measure Q, then there is no incentive to get creative and find a way to provide the necessary services to the public for less money.

      Please answer those questions for the voters, before Tuesday.

      Thank you.

      Allen Payton, Publisher

      • Vince Wells says:

        Allen,

        Thanks for the questions.

        In answer to your first question, we have given up 10% in pay since 2008. That should be very clear by reviewing Board of Supervisor previous agenda’s.
        As far as pension contributions, we pay more then anyone in the State of Calfornia as firefighters. I am not sure what experience you have in contract negotiations, but you know that any deals that are made are negotiated and include give and take for both sides that are equitable for the time of the deal and the length of the contract. So when the fact is we got a raise to pay for our retirement contribution 13 years ago based on the contract and since both the fire fighters and the fire district have seen increases to the cost of pensions, how is that contract relevant today? If we made a deal to get health coverage at the cost that was being charged in 1990 and gave up a raise to get it, what does that have to do with a new contract made in 2012? This point is being made to mislead the public when being brought up by those who do contract negotiations for employees. A contract and the terms agreed to during the length of it, are only good for the length of that contract. I believe this applies to the private sector as well.
        As far as response to calls.
        That is what will be modified if Measure Q fails. We currently send personnel to smoke alarms, smells of smoke, falls, lift assists of those who cant help themselves up, medicals, rescues, fire alarms, fires, etc. Our current staffing is three personnel in a station. We do not have the luxury to dispatch two people or any other combination of personnel or vehicle like departments that have 6 to 10 personnel in a station. If you send two people to pick up someone who has fallen and can’t get up in a SUV, who will staff the fire engine? Due to our staffing levels, we are forced to take our “all hazard” vehicle with all three of us on board to any call we go on. This is more efficient don’t you think? Again, our staffing is three personnel per station. If we are out on a lift assist in our SUV and you call 911 and your house is on fire, or you have been involved in a life threatening medical emergency, would you like to hear that we had to go back to the fire station during rush hour to change vehicles and pick up the third person prior to responding to your call?
        On to your question about vehicle accidents that don’t involve fire or disentanglement, are you relying on the 911 caller to determine what equipment is needed for a call? This has all been done before, Allen, we lost two fire fighters in 2007 and the couple that lived in the house due to a call that came in as a fire alarm and not an actual fire. We error on the side of the emergency. It is better to cancel resources responding to an emergency then to take the 5 minutes to get there and then ask for more. This time delay can cost lives. We are in the USA and in suburban California. It is sad that we have improved technology to the level that we have, but eliminating emergency resources has now become the thing to do.It is the actual police officers, fire fighters, and paramedics that mitigate emergencies not the gadgets alone.
        If Measure Q fails, a new service delivery model will be established. The truth however, is it will be a lower level of service. We will take longer to respond, we will not respond to calls that we currently do, and we will be able to do less when we get there. In our business that reduction in service equals lives and property. We are staffed below the number of stations they will close so Measure Q does not mean lay offs. I am not sure how anyone feels it will address the pension issues or anything else. There is no requirement for fire service level from the county. It has always been us firefighters who push for adequate staffing not the politicians. If we need to go from a 102 million dollar fire department to a 88 million dollar department, that is what will happen. We will go from 28 fire stations with three people in each of them, to 19- 21. This will not impact our pay or benefits, it just reduces the services available and the number of us on duty. Our budget gap is over 17 million dollars. We cannot take pay cuts to cover this and still afford our homes and families. And again, because of prop 13, the taxes collected per parcel will not change. So what could happen is, you pay the same amount and have less service. Once the insurance companies begin to realize the loss of property due to inadequate fire protection for property and business within our jurisdiction, they will increase their rates. This will not improve services it will just increase the costs to the tax payers. It would be nice if people like yourself tell the whole story and not just one side of the equation. Voting down Measure Q will be more costly to the tax payers then the $75 dollars a year for 7 years!

        • Publisher says:

          Vince,
          Thank you for your responses.
          So the issue of the firefighters in ConFire getting a pay raise to cover their payment toward their pensions was 13 years ago.
          But, how many pay raises and what percent did you get since then and since 2008?
          What matters is what’s happening in the economy, today and the amount of revenue to the district and what we can afford to pay, now.
          You say you pay more toward your pensions than any other firefighters in the state. Fine. But, how does your pay compare to the rest of the state?
          I’m asking this because I don’t know and it’s still not clear by your responses.
          Of course if Measure Q doesn’t pass it won’t impact the pay of all of ConFire’s firefighters, because you have a contract. But it will affect some, because they’ll be laid off.
          Allen

  5. Kris Hunt says:

    A few points in response:

    - 5% of the “cuts” were promised general raises that were forgone, not the same thing in most people’s minds.

    - 30% of additional pay comes from what it called “permantent overtime” which means a small cut in pay can be made up.

    - The District has an immense debt from pensions. This is called the unfunded liability. The employees pay NONE of that. That is why the District has a pension cost of $26.2 milion when salaries are only $36 million.

    Many people have to fund 100% of their own pensions. At a hearing on this measure a man talked about having to raid his retirement savings because he had been employed. Ask him about paying “only $75″ for something that is coming out of his pension savings.

    Lastly, CoCoTAX’s major objection is that this tax does not solve the district’s problems. Using the Chief’s OWN BUDGET that he revised in August, the district will not only be out of money when this measure ends they will still have large unfunded debts. This is a bad tax. It is time for the District board to step up and solve the problems instead of kicking the can down the road.

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