Voters douse most tax-increase fires

June 15, 2012

By Dave Roberts

When you take on the firefighters’ union, it helps to have an asbestos hide.

Kris Hunt, executive director for the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association, has waged a number of political battles over the years, including once receiving a death threat. But her recent battle against a $197 tax hike in a small fire district on the eastern edge of the Bay Area turned out to be the nastiest yet.

She was slandered as a “community terrorist” and repeatedly called a liar. One blogger placed her and five other tax opponents (including myself) on a hit list of people to contact if your house burns down. Hunt was told that a board member asked a staffer to find out her address.

Hunt jokes that she’s shopping for alligators for her moat.

“I have never been in one that was made so personal before,” she said. “Usually people will argue with you, but this thing actually devolved into name calling. They are still at it, that we are lying. Wow. They can’t accept reality. This is probably going to continue just because we have hit where they hurt. And when they didn’t have a solid argument they really let it get personal, and that is unfortunate.”

As for being on a hit list, Hunt said, “That’s another level of viciousness. By that time I decided the only way to deal with this, if you aren’t going to be able to convince these people, then you make fun. I said that I am number one on the list — I am bragging about it. That seemed the only way to deal with this.”

But she also acknowledged, “There’s a level of concern only in that there are crazy people out there. People can go over the line and get very emotional.”

Despite fire tax proponents spending $177,000 (to zero spending by opponents), the tax hike failed to gain a majority of the vote, let alone the two-thirds required to pass.

It was always going to be a tough sell asking for an additional $2,200 per home over 10 years when most people have lost 39 percent of their net worth in the last three years and many are still staggering from the aftershocks of the Great Recession. But the district board decided to go for it anyway, doing the bidding of the firefighters union as it seeks to increase salaries, benefits and jobs.

Fire tax hikes were not that popular throughout the state. In addition to the failure of the East Contra Costa tax hike, a $100 tax hike in Higgins, a $40 hike in North Auburn-Ophir, a $79 tax in Placer Hills and a $59 tax in Crest all failed.

There were two successful fire tax measures: a $150 tax in Newcastle and a four-year extension of a $65 tax in San Mateo County.

Tax-paid propaganda

Despite the economic malaise headwinds, fire tax measures have several built-in advantages for passage. Foremost is the ability to use taxpayer dollars to propagandize for more taxpayer dollars under the guise of an “education” campaign. The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District paid $120,000 to a campaign marketing firm. That money could have funded a firefighter for a year. It instead provided alarmist fliers to every home in the district and a series of tax-hike sales meetings.

“Alarmism” was the theme of the tax-hike campaign. The district’s first flier kicked it off with an official-looking brochure containing emergency contact numbers, a bold headline on a flaming red background, “Attention: East County Resident” and a 470-word message from the police chief explaining why a tax hike is necessary.

The district’s second taxpayer-provided flier was another official-looking piece headlined, “A Critical Update from Your Fire District.” It argued that the district has a deficit because of a 35 percent decline in revenues in the past four years and because the district receives half the property tax revenue of other districts. There’s no mention of the skyrocketing cost of retirement benefits as a contributing factor to the deficit. But there is a rebuttal to an argument that the district “should slash firefighter salaries,” stating that they make 71 percent less than firefighters in a neighboring district.

Another big advantage for tax hike proponents is the firefighters union. The International Association of Firefighters Local 1230 poured $44,000 into the campaign, resulting in more alarmist fliers. One door hanger headlined “IT’S AN EMERGENCY!” warned that without the tax hike “your health and home [will be] at risk” due to longer response times [photo of house on fire] and insurance rates will increase by thousands of dollars per year [photo of four $1,000 bills burning].” Another flier featured a large photo of an auto accident.

It’s telling that the person who presented the pro-tax side in a Measure S debate was not the fire district president or a board member, but instead the president of the local firefighters union, who is a fire captain in another fire district. Vince Wells, who led the tax-hike campaign, is also a contributor to the fiscal problem resulting in the need for tax hike campaigns. Last year Wells received from taxpayers: $103,635 in base salary, $20,912 in overtime, $15,794 in health care, $30,468 contribution to his pension and $15,990 in miscellaneous compensation. However, he does contribute 26 percent of his salary to his pension.

Cushy retirement

Firefighters can retire at age 50 and receive a pension equivalent to 3 percent of their pay for every year worked. That equates to 90 percent of final salary for someone who started at age 20. And that adds up. Forty percent of Contra Costa County government retirees receiving pensions of $100,000 or more used to work for a fire district. More than half of those receiving pensions of $200,000 or more are former fire district employees. And the top pension profiteer, enjoying more than $300,000 a year, is a former fire chief.

Retirement expenses in the East County fire district increased 26 percent this year and are projected to increase another 30 percent in the next three years. At that point, one out of every four dollars spent on firefighting will go for retirement. The Fire Protection District is morphing into the Retirement Protection District. Ironically, not even the $100 million tax hike would have been enough to stop the fiscal hemorrhaging. The district was still projected to return to deficit spending in four years.

The hero card

Another advantage is the residual good will for firefighters from 9/11 — the hero card. One billboard shows a smoky firefighter who looks like he’s been through hell, with the message: “When others ran out, he rushed in. When the Fire District asked for 54 cents a day, you laid him off!”

With Measure S receiving just 46 percent of the vote, the district is making good on its threats of Armageddon. Half of the district’s six stations will close and 15 firefighters will be laid off on July 1, reducing the force to 27.

Chief Hugh Henderson warned that response times to the outlying parts of the 250-square-mile district could more than double. Despite that, the board — again doing the bidding of the firefighters union — rejected the option of leaving four stations open with two firefighters in each. Instead, they chose to go with three stations with three firefighters each. That will provide a reduced workload for the firefighters but will increase response times in certain areas.

Tax-hike opponents are offering numerous suggestions to cut costs while continuing to deliver good service. They include privatizing fire protection, consolidating the fire districts in the county, serious pension reform, hiring more on-call reserve and volunteer firefighters, rectifying the top-heavy staffing, asking the cities in the district to donate and filing for bankruptcy. It remains to be seen whether the board investigates any of these options. It will probably depend on what the union wants. Politicians defy public-sector unions at their peril.

But taxpayers from Wisconsin to San Diego to East Contra Costa are fighting back against government of, by and for the government unions. East County fire board President Kevin Romick said, in regard to a county water tax hike that he opposed: “Every once in a while you’ve got to stand up to the bureaucratic behemoth and tell them it’s not right.” Fifty-six percent of his constituents agreed, voting down Romick’s tax hike.

Note: This article was corrected. It originally said that Vince Wells contributed “zero” to his pension. In fact, he contributes 26 percent of his salary. We regret the error.

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