The Rodeo-Hercules Fire District board just announced that a new tax increase, known as a benefit assessment, has passed, amidst criticism deriding the measure as unlawful. The District has a long history of budgetary woes, coupled with lavish $263k median compensation packages, amidst a union-backed board known for its aggressive tactics to fight any efforts that would rein in spending.
The traditional mechanism special districts use to raise taxes are known as a special parcel tax, which require a two-thirds majority to pass. Benefits assessments, by contrast, merely require a simple majority. However, they are only permitted to be levied for a “special benefit” that is defined as a “particular benefit to land and buildings, not a general benefit to the public…“
The use of a benefit assessment for fire protection, which is the definition of a general benefit, has received harsh criticism. Board member Bill Prather, the sole opposing vote against the tax, declared the action a “scam” and the Contra Costa Taxpayers Alliance decried the tax increase as “unconstitutional.”
The District has a history of employing legally and ethically questionable tactics to combat efforts that would force a reduction in spending. In early 2009, District Chief Gary Boyles found himself under attack from a union-backed board that had no tolerance for his cost-cutting ideas. As the Contra Costa Times reported, “Boyles had angered the union by advocating a fitness test as a prerequisite to sending firefighters on out-of-area wildland fire strike teams, a cherished source of overtime.”
After the union successfully forced Boyles out in June 2009 they turned their sights to Prather, another board director willing to stand up to the unions. Prather, a former Fire Captain himself, drew the board’s ire for endorsing similar cost-saving measures as Boyles supported, which were viscerally opposed by the unions who saw them as a potential threat to their revenue streams.
The Contra Costa Times summarized their efforts as, “An almost two year, union-backed attempt by four board members and the district’s lawyer to force Prather out of office.” Prather would not go down quietly, however. He refused to vacate his seat on the board and filed a lawsuit against the District for their attempts to wrongfully compel him to exit. He would receive vindication in 2011, when his lawsuit was victorious and the Board had to offer an apology for their actions.
Today, Prather finds himself surrounded by Local 1230 union-backed board members Manly Moulton Jr. and Raemona Williams, both of whom are active duty firefighters themselves, each earning annual compensation packages in excess of $260,000 each. Union Local 1230 President Vincent Wells, also an active duty firefighter, praised the board’s actions in pursuing the tax increase, in which he announced that “We’re looking forward to the new revenue.” The proliferation of union-beholden firefighters amongst a Board ostensibly designed to provide objective oversight for a fire district is a clear conflict of interest – how strongly will they fight for the interests of the taxpayers, especially if doing so would harm the interests of their fellow union-members?
In an article by the Contra Costa Times documenting the District’s budgetary woes, Fire Chief Hanley also failed to mention employee compensation as a cause of the District’s continued financial hardships, citing state-mandated education initiatives and other negligible factors, instead. Despite having received $347,500 in compensation for overseeing a 15 person department that only received fire-related calls less than 7% of the time, neither Hanley, nor anyone else on the union-backed board, mentioned compensation as the source of the District’s continued budgetary problems. In 2013, Chief Hanley would see his compensation rise to $395,000, which was more than even the chief of the 1500 person Orange County Fire Authority made the previous year.
Speaking to the recent tax increase, board member Beth Bartke thanked the union for handing out information leaflets that advocated for the tax increase, while ignoring the District’s most significant budgetary expense – employee compensation, which is a massive 78.2% of the entire budget. In 2012, the median compensation package for a full time employee of the District was over $278,000. The addition of a few more employees saw that number drop to $263k in 2013, still nearly 300% of the combined household income for the Hercules area. These values do not factor in the volunteer firefighters, who receive less than $1,000 annually, despite performing similar duties as salaried employees.
Consistent with this theme, the District’s otherwise comprehensive website becomes woefully inadequate when producing employee compensation data. Clearly, Local 1230 and the district board members they support have a very strong interest in making sure the taxpayers of the Rodeo-Hercules area remain in the dark about how their tax dollars are being spent.
Unfortunately, the case of the Rodeo-Hercules is not an isolated occurrence. Public unions have long recognized that they can “rig the game” in their favor by controlling the key positions in government that control access to the spigot of tax dollars. There is simply too much money to be won to allow those advocating fiscal responsibility to stand in the way. Mr. Prather, and Fire Chief Boyles before him, are all too common stories of isolated individuals standing up to union interests only to find their efforts met by a relentless, organized, well-funded machine that is willing to harass, intimidate, and in the case of Mr. Prather, act unlawfully to destroy any opposition to their primary goal – keep the money flowing.