Let’s go through this slowly so that many folks can understand just exactly what the Contra Costa Times Editorial Board tried to do with yesterdays editorial against Contra Costa County Fire. In a nutshell, the Times are trying to trash the fire District and the Board of Supervisors on this issue in order to get enough public outcry to force them into changing service models, pay, and pensions.
While the Times is entitled to their opinion, they need to stop making such blanket statements that bad mouth the District because their statements are pretty much failing to show the big picture while leaving out a ton of information. This is such a complex issue that these little editorials the Times puts out benefit no one and keeps the debate dishonest.
So here is the editorial from yesterday that is in bold with my rebuttal immediately following.
Contra Costa Times editorial: Fire district must find creative ways to ensure public safety
Contra Costa Times editorial
Posted: 11/09/2012 10:00:00 AM PST
Updated: 11/09/2012 04:53:57 PM PST
For more than two years, officials of the Contra Costa Fire Protection District have claimed they need more money.
The firefighters are speaking the truth. Over 90% of the revenue for fire comes from property tax. When revenue goes down, so does the funding. It is not a claim, it’s a reality. We’re basically paying 2002 prices for fire service we receive today. That’s about where the property values reset to after the crash and they haven’t recovered much from the bottom. Since the fire department gets 90+% of its revenue from that stream, there’s your problem.
If you don’t believe me, ask where was the Contra Costa Times and Contra Costa Taxpayers Association prior to 2002 pointing out this so called problem? Their was no issue until revenue went down with the economic recession.
The reality is, prices go up but rarely go down! Just look at the price of a cup of coffee in 2002 and compare it to today’s cost. How about a gallon of gas? Medical insurance premiums? Electricity? The same principal applies to fire services which you would think those at CoCo Tax would understand being MBA’s and all with numbers.
But rather than embark on a serious examination of how to deliver services more cost-effectively, Chief Daryl Louder and the county Board of Supervisors have done nothing, hoping that voters would simply agree to tax themselves more.
A flat out lie. Via Vince Wells, some of the actions taken:
- Put together a labor/management team to reduce expenditures (things we could live without).
- Reduce salaries, benefits, delay capital purchases and improvements.
- More pay cuts, close two engine companies, lay off personnel.
- Utilize grants for capital, watch the economy specifically the housing market and property values.
- Evaluate other service delivery options (all reduced service level).
- Pension changes to reduce costs (legal changes), and will are now working on the implementation of the governors reform plan that takes effect Jan 2013.
All the above has been going on since and continues. Each year the situation was reassessed. The chief and the Board of Supervisors had to decide on service reductions, utilizing the reserves, employee cuts and layoffs. Again, the District is funded by property taxes alone. Their revenue source is not diverse and they are not part of the county general fund.
I would like to add to Mr. Wells comments that Local 1230 put out an informational piece in early October that highlights much of what has been done which disproves this bogus statement by the Times. Here is a link to the information that I posted on October 9, 2012. The Times did not provide an accurate history lesson to its readers. The Times also might have missed the second piece of literature that went out explaining “Why Do We Send a Fire Engine to a Medical Emergency?”. Maybe the firefighters can send the Times a copy?
There is even video that begins in 2008 from the Board of Supervisors which can further disprove the Times statement.
It was a cynical, political and irresponsible move, blackmailing residents, telling them to cough up more money or watch stations close and homes burn. But voters on Nov. 6 said no, rejecting a $75 annual parcel tax.
There was no blackmail, voters had the option to pay $75 or close stations. That is a choice in service levels. CONFIRE is a $102 million dollar department that now has to operate with $88 million. Changes to the delivery model are inevitable.
Their message was simple: First show us meaningful efforts to cut costs, to contain out-of-control pension expenses and to provide emergency medical service more cheaply than sending high-priced firefighters.
Pay attention to the word “meaningful” because its undefined. The Editorial Board has never said what would satisfy them. They also never provided a cost analysis to prove keeping engines in stations is a cost savings–for the record, even if engines are stuck in stations during medical calls, you are still paying firefighters to sit around and play cards or watch TV. Meanwhile, AMR’s contract would have to be amended and would cost the County more to ensure they can handle the call volume. Finally, many incidents would require an engine anyway. Making this change simply increases response times during life threatening incidents.
If the Times wants to continue using the word “meaningful”, going forward they are going to need to define what it means with their own plan. Rather than continue to tear down fire, the Time has come to sit down with fire and figure out the numbers that would make the papers editorial board happy. Right now, its an unknown.
Louder and the supervisors should not be surprised. The election outcome was predictable. But now that the tax has failed, their first move will probably be to close stations. They’ve backed themselves, and residents, into a corner because they have made no meaningful efforts to find alternatives.
Is the Times not paying attention? CONFIRE has been telling everyone in public the first thing they will do is close stations. It’s not “probably”, its it will happen. See my comments above on this claim about no meaningful efforts to find alternatives as the Times is ignoring history. Again, the Times or CoCo Tax have never provided alternatives of their own.
Louder’s response has been particularly disappointing. He’s fixated on his conventional fire protection model. To use a worn cliché, he’s unable to think outside the box. His presentations have been nothing more than boosterism for business as usual.
Nice try Contra Costa Times, the service model that is in place today has evolved over the past fifty years. What the Times is suggesting is actually a reduction in service and going backwards in time. That is irresponsible! Thinking outside of the box is what gave us the fabulous coverage we have come to expect of well-trained and highly skilled firefighters and paramedics—throw in the EMT’s, we had it made!
I actually happened to enjoy Louders response to the situation and presentations because he was honest and straight forward. They were thoughtful and full of wonderful information that the Times and CoCo Tax ignored even when given to them.
Meanwhile, the supervisors, apparently unwilling to risk the political wrath of the firefighters, have similarly shown no initiative or creativity. They seem unwilling to even take responsibility, even though they are the directors of the fire district, which serves much of Central County as well as Antioch, Pittsburg and San Pablo.
Not true, they simply don’t share the same initiative or creativity the CC Times Editorial Board wishes to impose on its readers—which again, is a reduction in service.
For example, go back to July of this year at the Board of Supervisors meeting, those who have done nothing are Kris Hunt from the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association who failed to provide any type of plan when asked by Supervisor Federal Glover. She also could not answer Supervisor Mary Pipeho’s questions.
The Board of Supervisors have been willing to take responsibility and have had years of talks with firefighters and the state, but IRS laws and other rules have prevented the change. This idea that the Times is suggesting about a lack of responsibility is a fib. Here is the discussion from August of this year during the Board of Supervisors meeting.
Here is the dialogue from yesterday’s meeting on this.
Anderson: We can’t impose changes on existing pensions, but they can be agreed to change.
Gioia: We need to be 100% accurate here. There is 1 of 2 ways for change.
1. Negotiate with union and union agrees to having prospective service under lower pension tier. All it takes is 1 or 2 members who disagree and they can sue and it falls apart. Means union cant bargain change.
2. In case of those members who want to change going forward (volunteer), we are prevented from doing that from IRS.
Gioia: Vince can correct me, but I would bet firefighters would agree to that. But Federal Law prevents us from that. So its really important for the public to realize this is a change under State and Federal Law. We are trying to get the most we can get by working together.
Anderson: Explained again how she has been exploring this with the IRS and a decision is coming that may address this problem
Piepho: We have been waiting for that same IRS decision for 5 years. We keep waiting and waiting.
The Board of Supervisors have tried, its just not on the Timeline the Times wishes.
(As an interesting aside, we note that the fire district’s web site makes no mention of the supervisors as the directors in charge. The organizational chart shows Louder at the top, as if he has ultimate authority.)
Really? This is no big deal.
Serious action is long overdue. Louder has failed to deliver meaningful policy analysis. If he doesn’t show more initiative, supervisors should replace him with someone who will.
Just like the Board of Supervisors requested CoCo Tax to come up with a plan they refused to actually deliver, I’d like the Times Editorial Board to come up with a plan of their own so we can finally get their definition of “serious”. What type of service models and what type of pension reform are we talking about? What type of pay checks should firefighters receive? Without a serious plan, I’d suggest the Times be replaced with an Editorial Board who will actually come out with a reform position instead of blanket statements where the starting line in a discussion is undefined.
Meanwhile, they must bypass him and bring in independent outside experts to evaluate new ways to deliver services efficiently and effectively. As we said before the election, the questions that must be asked include:
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?
Now back up a minute, this is where it gets interesting because for the past year, the CC Times and CoCo Tax have been the major opposition of Measure S and Measure Q and acted like the experts. They called on pension reform, service model changes and now all of a sudden hey are requesting an expert? They have proclaimed they had the answers and now they are suggesting consultants which will cost taxpayers.
For the record, before the Times ever suggested a change in service models or provided an opinion, they should have withheld an opinion until a “consultant” makes a recommendation. A fire chief is an expert and in many cases these consultants are former fire chiefs anyway. Does a consultant have a magic wand that once they give an opinion, the Times Editorial Board will then agree to do what a consultant suggest? Consultants offer advice, but it doesn’t mean the advice is always good advice.
To me, this is the way the Times gets out of ever having to put their own solution forward in public. Same goes for CoCo Tax. With a failed Measure, now we get to hear the rhetoric that a consultant is needed.
Should fire inspectors continue to receive pensions at rates that were intended for people who put their lives on the lines? Should current firefighters be asked to agree to reduced pension accruals for their future working years rather than watching more of them lose their jobs?
These answers should have been included in the CC Times and CoCo Tax plans, but they were never provided. Now they are putting it on others to answer so they can come back and slam the plans later.
These questions must be seriously analyzed. The answers are long overdue.
These questions the Times are throwing out there have been answered many times, the Times simply doesn’t like the answer and will not admit it. The only thing that happened with Measure Q going down is service levels will be reduced and that is a shame.
If the Contra Costa Times wants to continue to disagree with how fire services should be provided, that is one thing, but to blatantly continue to put out misinformation is reckless and irresponsible.
If we are going to continue to have a public debate, the least that the Times can do is provide correct facts and history to its readers. If they are unwilling to be honest, then no public debate should be deemed necessary and they should be ignored.
I’d encourage the Times Editorial Board to just stop with the rhetoric and simply put out a plan they would happy with. At leas then an honest debate could occur.
By Michael Burkholder