The Contra Costa County Fire Protection District is studying the possibility of merging with the Rodeo-Hercules Fire Protection District and/or with the financially troubled East Contra Costa Fire Protection District.

The latter move, officials say, could improve firefighting services for Brentwood, Oakley and surrounding rural areas where firefighting forces have been stretched dangerously thin.

Con Fire spokesman Steve Hill said work began this month on a Fire District Annexation Feasibility Study, being done on behalf of the three fire districts by Sacramento-based firm AP Triton Consulting.

The study, Hill said, will be done in two phases: the first will involve an economic feasibility analysis of the East Contra Costa district. The second will then take on the actual annexation feasibility for each of the districts.

“To be clear, Con Fire is not interested in a consolidation or consolidations that would result in its subsidizing of other agencies. … Successful consolidations will be ones that result in gains for the residents of both districts.”

Steve Hill, Contra Costa County Fire Protection District

The three agencies are sharing the cost of the studies, Hill said, with the first phase expected to be completed by mid-November.

If the study’s phase-one findings warrant, the second phase will be conducted for ECCFPD, Rodeo-Hercules or both. Phase two would examine whether a merger could bring about economic benefits.

“While our districts already work very closely together on mutual aid assignments across our individual borders, we all maintain completely separate operations, training and administrative functions,” Hill said. “We believe this situation creates many potential areas of benefit for each of the districts involved, not the least of which is considerable economies of scale by bringing completely separate operational entities under one overhead structure.”

That work, if pursued, would likely take an additional six months, Hill said.

Another attempt at finding a solution

The ECCFPD board last month approved spending $30,000 on this study. Brian Oftedal, the fire district’s board president, said similar thoughts have come up periodically over the years, and that this study is another attempt at finding a solution. Also, many of the people at both Con Fire and the East Contra Costa district have turned over, Oftedal said, and that could perhaps present a new dynamic.

“We were always viewed as too much of a liability” to be a consolidation partner, Oftedal said. “Now there are suggestions that this could be doable.”

There have been multiple discussions among fire service leaders about the potential benefits of merging these three agencies over the years, Hill said. Also, multiple Contra Costa County Local Agency Formation Commission reviews have identified certain efficiencies and economies of scale that could be achieved through a larger, more regional, fire service organization.

The East Contra Costa district’s financial woes have been a long time in the making. Voters in the district have rejected several parcel tax assessments in the past dozen years.

The district also says that rapid development in Brentwood and Oakley hasn’t been accompanied by proportionate development impact fees that help fund firefighting operations; the fire district and the city of Oakley are now in discussions about improving that situation for the district.

The Rodeo-Hercules district has also had financial difficulties. District voters in 2016 approved a $215 annual parcel tax, which may have saved the district from bankruptcy.

“To be clear, Con Fire is not interested in a consolidation or consolidations that would result in its subsidizing of other agencies; that would be counterproductive and not our intent,” Con Fire’s Hill said. “Successful consolidations will be ones that result in gains for the residents of both districts.”

Dissimilar histories

While the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District is part of the county government structure, the East Contra Costa and Rodeo-Hercules districts are not. ECCFPD is an independent district, created in 2002 by the merger of three local fire districts. It serves Brentwood and Oakley, and unincorporated areas in East County that include Discovery Bay, Bethel Island, Knightsen, Byron, Marsh Creek and Morgan Territory.

The Rodeo Fire District was established in 1937, and the City of Hercules was annexed into the district in 1978.

The possibility of a fire district consolidation has been a popular topic with East County political candidates, most of whom favor the study.

A consolidation “is an opportunity to provide the people of Brentwood and far East County with the fire service we need and deserve,” said Joel Bryant, the vice mayor of Brentwood, a current candidate for mayor and a onetime president of the ECCFPD board of directors. “The two districts already provide mutual aid to each other, mainly with fire stations and personnel in Brentwood, Oakley, Discovery Bay and Antioch.”

One thing he and others stress is that there be no new taxes tied to any merger proposal.

The ECCFPD’s Steve Aubert said the initial phase of the study should be illuminating, especially regarding finances.

“We’re trying to turn over every rock before going back to the community with any potential ask,” Aubert said.