Future of Rodeo-Hercules Fire District’s independence remains unclear

Future of Rodeo-Hercules Fire District’s independence remains unclear

HERCULES — Faced with an uncertain economic future, officials with the Rodeo-Hercules Fire District have begun pursuing annexation by Contra Costa County Fire Protection District. But not all residents are sold on the idea.

At two recent town halls focused on the issue, officials warned that the longterm financial health of the RHFD doesn’t look strong: spending is projected to outpace revenue within the next decade, while the district is staring down millions in unfunded pension liability.

Four options being explored are remaining with the status quo while cutting services, securing additional funding, contracting out for services, or annexation, RHFD Fire Chief Rebecca Ramirez, ConFire Chief Lewis Broschard and Michael Despain, a former fire chief who’s consulting the district on the matter, said at the June town hall meetings.

District residents were surveyed on those issues over the past few weeks and results from that survey will be reviewed by the RHFD Board of Directors during a special meeting July 10. Some participants of both town halls called the survey one-sided with leading questions meant to favor being absorbed by ConFire.

Of the four options in front of the district, Chief Ramirez said staying with the status quo would likely force the department to close a fire station, given no additional funding source was found. The further the district slips into financial trouble, she said, the less likely an outside agency would want to annex the area.

The district is expected to bring in revenue of $10 million to $12.3 million between 2024 and 2030, while spending $10 million to $13.3 million over the same timeframe, officials said. RHFD has only $7 million in reserves and about $12 million in unfunded pension liability.

Even with some increases in revenue, such as a financial boost if the economy turns around or the completion of the Hercules Hub — a project bringing 1,400 units of housing, 340,000 square feet of office space and new multimodal connections to the area — Ramirez said the money may not be enough to cover costs.

“In years to come there could be an increase in (revenue). The issue is we don’t have years to come,” Ramirez said during the first town hall held in Hercules on June 18. “My fear is even if we add an extra $1.5 million, we wouldn’t be able to provide the service ConFire can.”

Despain said the option of contracting out for services was taken off the table after the district put out requests and received zero interest from other agencies. He noted contracting can be “dangerous” for the agency providing the services because they could be left with employees on their hands and no revenue to cover those costs once the contract ended.

That leaves one likely outcome — dissolving the Rodeo-Hercules Fire District and merging with ConFire. The agency dates back to 1937, when it was known as the Rodeo Fire District. It annexed Hercules in the late 1970s as the population in the city known for its dynamite plant began to explode. ConFire, the county’s largest fire agency, provides fire services primarily in Central and East Contra Costa but has fire stations in West County.

Ramirez said annexation could occur as soon as a year from now if decisions are made at a steady pace. During the July 10 meeting, the fire district board could ask staff to return with a proposal for annexation to be voted on soon after and Broschard would take a similar proposal to the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, which provides oversight of ConFire.

The Local Agency Formation Commission would then review the proposal, a process that takes between three-to four months, Ramirez said. If LAFCO signs off, a transition process would begin with input by both Ramirez and Broschard.

If annexation were to happen, Broschard assured the public that funds from Measure O, a parcel tax approved by RHFD voters in 2016 to support the district’s two fire stations, would continue to be used for those stations. He said existing ConFire staff would help reduce costs and reserve funds would go toward paying down unfunded liabilities.

“It’s important that you understand that you will still and always receive the most efficient, quickest, safest, first response with three firefighters from stations 75 and 76, with a paramedic on each one of those engine of trucks companies. That is our minimum at ConFire,” Broschard said.

Not all were convinced. Maureen Brennan and Frank Grimsley, both members of the Measure O Oversight Committee, questioned why the issue wasn’t being put to voters.

“I don’t want to be annexed. I don’t think it’s necessary. I think our fire district has made a tremendous turnaround since 2016,” Brennan said, adding that she plans to push for the issue to be put to a public vote when discussed by the board on on July 10.

Former RHFD Fire Chief Pedro Jimenez also raised questions about annexation and some speakers asked for more data before a final decision is made. Speakers during both town halls also shared concerns Rodeo and Hercules residents would be neglected under ConFire management given that oversight of the district is provided by the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors.

Others, though, seemed to be persuaded in favor of annexation. Tanya Little, a 32-year Hercules resident, said she’s researched and worked on the issue since 2021 and ultimately believes annexation is best for the community.

Sarah Creeley, a teacher at Hanna Ranch Elementary School, said she was against dissolving the district until she realized the “range of experience” residents would get under a larger organization.

RHFD Capt. Jonathan Bischoff, who has 25 years with the agency, said the majority of the district’s16 crew members support annexation and the additional support it would bring.

“Whether it’s Rodeo-Hercules or Contra Costa County fire protection, this is still our community that we serve. And I want you all to be aware of that because we take it seriously,” Bischoff said. “We’re bailing wire and duct tape, smoke and mirrors. We make it look easy but it’s not. ConFire’s got a big umbrella and they’ve got 10 more waiting when that one breaks.”