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Contra Costa Co. Supervisors Approve Closing 4 Fire Stations

MARTINEZ (CBS SF) -- The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday evening to approve a plan to shutter four fire stations a month after voters rejected a parcel tax measure meant to prevent the closures.

The cost-saving service reduction plan drafted by Contra Costa County Fire Protection District Chief Daryl Louder comes a month after Measure Q, a $75 annual parcel tax designed to help close the district's $17 million budget deficit, failed to receive a two-thirds "super majority" vote.

Stations located at 700 Hawthorne Drive in Walnut Creek, at 6500 Center Ave. in Clayton, at 1240 Shell Ave. in Martinez and at 4007 Los Arabis Ave. in Lafayette are set to close in January. The Lafayette station has been temporarily closed since June.

Those stations were selected for closure based on their location, call volume and emergency risk factors in the surrounding communities, fire officials said.

The closures will leave Walnut Creek with only three stations, Martinez and Lafayette with just two each, and Clayton without any fire station.

"We know that with longer response times, we have increased safety concerns for the public and increased safety concerns for our firefighters," Louder said. "We will continue to monitor the impact, monitor response times and evaluate the situation."

Louder said the closures, while a drastic measure, are the only viable alternative available since the fire district has spent through its reserves after years of falling property tax revenue and soaring pension and health care costs.

The chief explained that the district's personnel have taken pay cuts and contributed more to their pension and health care costs in recent years, but have been unable to solve their fiscal dilemma.

The plan is expected to save the financially embattled district $3 million over the next six months, according to the chief. The district's current annual budget is over $102 million.

For the second consecutive week, the board of supervisors and fire officials spent hours weighing the pros and cons of closing the four stations. The board also heard about alternative service models, including staffing fire stations with only two firefighters and using reserve firefighters to help respond to calls in the areas around the closed stations.

The board heard from about a dozen local residents, including fire personnel, at Tuesday evening's meeting. Many said they would prefer to keep the stations near their homes open with a two-person staff rather than closing them completely.

Echoing other fire officials who spoke Tuesday evening, Louder said that he believes staffing two-person fire engine companies is a riskier option that still would not provide an adequate firefighting force.

Others voiced concerns about the fire station nearest to the Shell Oil Refinery in Martinez being closed.

"I believe having a refinery as a neighbor is an additional community threat—a threat for malfunctions such as Chevron's—and that could happen to us any day," said Ray Ulmer, a retired Shell employee and longtime Martinez resident who said he lives just 1,000 feet from the refinery.

Each of the supervisors voiced their own reluctance to approve the closures, but noted that the fire district's financial situation leaves little other choice.

"We have to close stations," Supervisor Federal Glover said. "It's not what we want to do, and certainly not what any of us signed up to do...but we have to live within our means and we have to do it in a way we feel we're go to be able to give the best quality service possible."

Louder said he anticipates that two more stations will close in fiscal year 2013-2014.

In the meantime, the chief said he plans to meet with community members in the areas surrounding the closed stations to discuss measures the district will take to provide service in those areas.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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