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The city of Oakley and its county-run fire district are embroiled in a disagreement over whether the city collects enough developer impact fees to help pay for the needed level of fire protection, the fire district board’s president contends.

On Oct. 8, Brian Oftedal, president of the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District board, sent Oakley a 10-page letter critical of the city’s approval of new housing developments as the district is struggling to provide service to the existing homes and commercial properties. Oftedal said the city has violated terms of a 2018 contract by allowing developers to build new houses and pay fees insufficient to properly pay for fire protection.

Specifically, the fire district criticized what it called Oakley’s “longstanding practice” of discounting or waiving developer fees that help pay for fire protection, and what district leaders view as Oakley’s reluctance to require new development to be part of community facilities districts that collect taxes to help fund fire protection.

“Developers have been paying outdated low fees. We are clearly not being given the much-needed attention we require.”

Brian Oftedal, East Contra Costa Fire Protection District board president

In his letter, Oftedal also contends that Oakley has disregarded several commitments made as part of a funding agreement between the city and the fire district about building the district’s Station 55, which also involve the city’s waiving of fire impact fees. He asks that the city ensure that future development contributes sufficient funding to provide “fire protection service consistent with national standards.” A key step, he said Thursday, would be for Oakley to require fee increases at established intervals to keep pace with inflation.

“Developers have been paying outdated low fees,” Oftedal said. “We are clearly not being given the much-needed attention we require.”

Oakley’s mayor responds

In a statement of his own, Oakley Mayor Kevin Romick said the city has not been reluctant to form community facility districts to ensure revenue sources for fire protection. He also said that Amazon, which will soon move into the new Contra Costa Logistics Center in Oakley is paying the “full” fire impact fees to help fund fire services, as will other occupants when they move in. The city, Romick said, can’t charge higher impact fees than were originally agreed to.

Romick, who served on that fire district board himself years ago when board members were appointed by the fire district’s cities, said he understands the dire “financial predicament” it is in. Over the past 25 years, the district has gone from almost entirely rural to increasingly urban. Developer fees have not kept up, and East Contra Costa voters have turned down three tax proposals in recent years that would have subsidized fire district operations. These failures include a 2012 parcel tax proposal, a proposed benefit assessment district in 2015, and a utility user tax in 2016. Partly as a result of that, three of the district’s six stations sit idle and unstaffed.

This past week, the fire district’s board directed its chief, Brian Helmick, to ask leaders from Oakley, Brentwood and Contra Costa County to consider declaring public safety emergencies, paving the way for the fire district to apply for federal and state relief funds. Fire districts cannot unilaterally declare such emergencies.

Developer threatens legal action

Oakley City Attorney Derek Cole said the fire district and the city have been talking for about six weeks about an update of the city’s impact fees. He acknowledges that at least one developer, Discovery Builders, has threatened legal action. City officials will continue to evaluate the fire district’s recommendations for impact fees, as well as Discovery Builders’ concerns about raising them.

While Discovery Builders has concerns about higher developer fees, the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area weighed in on the matter in a July letter to a number of East Contra Costa elected leaders and other officials.

“While our industry remains deeply concerned about the overall negative impacts of high fees on housing production rates and home affordability, our members recognize the vital role that adequate fire protection plays in our communities,” the letter said. “We want very much to be a part of the solution and we remain committed to supporting the (East County fire district’s) diligent efforts in this arena.”

Cole said staff needs more time to assess the fire district’s proposed impact fees, which have not been increased in two decades, and Discovery Builders’ concerns about them. He also said he expects the city and the fire district to reach agreements on fee-related points in the next several weeks.

“We have some real differences of opinion, but we know we have to have financially viable fire service, and the (Oakley) City Council agrees wholeheartedly,” Cole said.

Oftedal isn’t so optimistic about a resolution to this impasse anytime soon. “There’s so much to go over,” said Oftedal, adding that the discussions will indeed continue.