Contra Costa Times editorial: District voters should reject false choice offered in fire tax
© Copyright 2012, Bay Area News Group
Residents of the Contra Costa Fire Protection District are being offered a false choice: Approve a $75-a-year parcel tax on the Nov. 6 ballot or face the shutdown of nearly one-third of the district's stations.
It's political blackmail. And it ignores potential savings that could have, and still could be, attained if fire district officials make meaningful pension changes and seriously examine ways to restructure, especially when it comes to providing emergency medical services.
The tax measure affects property owners in much of Central County as well as Antioch, Pittsburg and San Pablo. It has been under discussion for at least two years.
The Contra Costa Board of Supervisors, which runs the district, should have made every effort to find savings before going to voters. It didn't.
There has been no serious discussion of options. Should firefighters continue delivering emergency medical services? If so, should they continue to receive extra pay for that, or should it be part of their basic salary? Should at least some of the county's 10 financially strapped fire districts be merged to save on administrative costs?
Should fire inspectors continue to receive pensions at rates that were intended for people who put their lives on the lines? Should current employees be asked to agree to reduce pension accruals for their future working years? Should newly hired employees continue to be promised the same sort of pensions that are helping drive this current financial crisis?
There has been no serious evaluation of alternatives. Instead, voters are told to either pay more or watch homes burn.
They're told the district plans to implement serious pension reform for new hires. In fact, the new pension formulas under discussion are just slightly less generous than the current ones and far more costly than the ones in effect a decade ago.
To be sure, the district's finances are teetering on a cliff. Even if voters approve the new tax, the district's budget projections show expenditures exceeding revenues until fiscal year 2022-23. To balance the books, the district plans to continue depleting reserves that should have gone to pay down the district's pension debt.
But where do those expenditures go? For every dollar spent on salaries (excluding overtime), the district currently spends 88 cents on pension and retiree health care costs. By fiscal year 2017-18, the district will be spending substantially more on retirement costs than salaries.
The board and Chief Daryl Louder have had plenty of time to prepare for this, to negotiate meaningful pension changes and seriously examine new ways to deliver services more cost-effectively. They have done neither.
We recognize that residents might need to pay more. But, especially in these tough economic times, that should be the last line of defense. We hear supervisors saying they will make more changes in the future. That should come first.
As the Contra Costa Grand Jury said, "Simply asking the taxpayers for more money to fund old service models and support burdensome labor agreements is not the answer." That's why we urge voters to reject the parcel tax.
For a map of the fire district, to read the Contra Costa County Grand Jury's May report on county fire service costs and to see the fire district's 10-year budget projections, go to www.contracostatimes.com/opinion and click on this editorial.