Measure Q is not about fire services: It’s about a failure of leadership. The Contra Costa Fire Protection District has known for many years that its spending exceeded its income. But instead of taking reasonable action to cut costs, the District continued spending, using its savings to fund daily operations. Now the District is broke and asks residents to pay more for the same service. Should residents support this new tax? Consider:
Measure Q does not solve the District’s financial problems. The District’s latest budget projections (August 2012) show the District will be $11 million in the red when the tax ends seven years from now. Further, the budget in incomplete because it lacks funding for vehicle replacement and leaves NO reserves, contrary to the District’s own policy that calls for a 10% reserve to be maintained at all times.
The District and the Yes on Q campaign say that property tax collections have been down by $34 million cumulatively, over the past four years. Yet Measure Q is expected to yield $68 million over four years ($17 million annually) – an amount far in excess of the property tax decline. Why? The District needs those extra dollars for skyrocketing personnel costs, particularly for pensions.
There is a reason that Measure Q has been dubbed “The Pension Parcel Tax.” In 2002 the District increased pension benefits at significantly greater cost. Since then District pension-related costs have increased from $4.5 million to $26.2 million per year – a six-fold increase in only ten years. By 2015, pension costs are expected to rise 35%, to $35.3 million annually, with no end in sight.
District retiree health care costs $7.6 million annually and continues to rise. These costs are high because firefighters can, and do, retire young (typically at age 50). In fact, studies show that life expectancy for firefighters is identical to that of other government workers.
District firefighters say they pay more towards pensions than do county workers. Yet proponents fail to mention that, unlike other workers, firefighters received raises that more than offset their increased pension contributions.
The District settled on a $75 tax after polling showed that people would vote for it. However this amount does not correspond to the District’s budget or actual costs. Relying on polls to do budgeting is a recipe for failure.
The Yes on Q campaign talks about the firefighters’ “10% pay cut.” There was a 5% pay cut and two 2.5% raises that were not granted. Most people do not consider cancelled raises equal to a “pay cut.” Former County Treasurer-Tax Collector Bill Pollacek offered additional details here.
Each year the District budgets nearly $11 million for what is called “Permanent Overtime.” (in addition to regular pay of $35.6 million). Last year, out of 350 employees 188 earned $25,000 or more in overtime; and 89 employees earned $50,000 or more in overtime.
The District’s financial problems are a longstanding issue. The District’s unaffordable pensions and failure to fund vehicle replacement costs have long been documented in the annual budgets and elsewhere. A December 10, 2010 article by Contra Costa Times columnist Dan Borenstein cited the impact of the District’s rising pension costs.
When faced with all of these issues, instead of working on solving the District’s problems the District Board sent letter to the Firefighter Union Local 1230 President in July 2011, stating: “ . . . the Board will make its best efforts to place a parcel tax proposal on the ballot prior to December 2012 . . . .”
There is no reason to reward this kind of leadership failure. The District has been living beyond its means for many years, has depleted its savings and now threatens to close stations unless residents pay a new tax. Instead the District should review its methods and develop a realistic long-term plan to ensure needed services are provided at a cost the community can afford.