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Blackhawk residents talk parcel tax, local burglaries at public safety town hall

Safety officials also express frustration over PG&E's Public Safety Power Shutoffs

Blackhawk community members had the opportunity to talk about fire and criminal activity concerns with their public safety officials on Tuesday evening when Contra Costa County District 3 Supervisor Diane Burgis hosted a public safety town hall.

More than 50 residents attended the town hall at Diablo Vista Middle School -- which is technically a part of District 2 -- where they got to hear from public safety officials about pressing issues facing their community including the PG&E Public Safety Power Shutoffs, home invasion burglaries and a potential increase to the community’s parcel tax for police services.

In addition to Burgis, Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston, San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District Fire Chief Paige Meyer and Blackhawk Police Services Advisory Board (P2-A) Chair Chris Gallagher were on hand to meet and talk with residents.

“The reason for this meeting is that sometimes people aren't really clear who does what, how is it paid for and why we are doing things the way they are,” Burgis told the congregation.

One of the headlining discussions of the evening was a potential parcel tax increase that would be used to fund Blackhawk’s police services -- which are contracted through the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office.

“There are other areas that won't have the areas of service you have and that's what P2-A is doing,” Burgis said. “(It’s) making sure that the community has the level of service that they are willing to pay for and there has been a lot of demand because of certain crimes that have occurred.”

Currently, Blackhawk residential parcels pay $280 per year for police services, the P2-A Committee has proposed raising that tax amount to $395 per year -- a 41.07% increase -- and further increasing the tax by a flat rate of 3% per year to keep up with police-related expenses after that.

Advisory board members did note that if calculated as an annual increase since 2005 -- the last time a parcel measure was done -- the tax would essentially mean a 2.93% annual increase.

Gallagher said the current raise was analyzed by the P2-A Committee and is believed to be the best possible option for avoiding potential disruptions or reductions to police services.

“Without intervention, we have a problem,” Gallagher said, explaining the need for the increase. “If we don't intervene here and make a parcel tax measure, in 2021 this committee will run out of money and have to make some adjustments in cutting.”

Gallagher added that without the tax the community would be policed by the county sheriff’s office, which may increase response rates from where they currently stand at less than six minutes, to between 20 and 30.

“Without that (parcel tax) then there would just be general county patrol. So the idea is that this community demands a safe community, which you have by and large, and demands prompt response times and wants to set the priorities for policing in this community,” Livingston said.

The P2-A Committee plans to consider recommending the tax increase to the County Board of Supervisors after its next meeting on Nov. 12. If supported by the county, then residents will vote on the issue during a mail-in only ballot on May 7, 2020.

One of the primary issues parcel tax-funded officers in Blackhawk deal with, which was discussed at length on Tuesday, is burglaries.

Assistant Sheriff John Lowden said that Blackhawk saw more than a dozen burglaries occur in 2017 and 2018, many of which seem to have been committed by a sort of gang of thieves.

“(The burglaries) from what we believe can be attributed to a group of individuals who are basically a gang of burglars that actually target golf communities,” Lowden told the audience. “We did collect some DNA, we uploaded it into our system and we actually got a hit on somebody. We have an active warrant for a suspect.”

While attendees appreciated the officers' efforts, some in attendance expressed frustration at the lack of communication coming from the sheriff's office about burglaries, particularly over the progress of cases or identification of suspects.

“What we try to do as a law enforcement entity is to release enough information so that the community feels safe, and I can tell you right now if we haven't found him he's not in the area," Lowden responded. "But we don't want to release too much information so that when we do bring him in for questioning his story is already preplanned and plotted and he has a false defense, if you will."

Not to be left out, SRVFPD’s Chief Paige Meyer was on hand to talk about the services his district offers Blackhawk residents, with talk quickly turning to fire prevention and his response to the PG&E Public Safety Power Shutoffs that greatly affected the region last month.

“We haven't been happy with our interactions with upper management in their decision making and it's been very frustrating for us,” Meyer said of PG&E, a sentiment that was echoed by Livingston.

Meyer explained that while Blackhawk’s power grids are underground, which he said makes them much safer, PG&E does not operate on what he calls a "microgrid," meaning that they can not turn off power exclusively in one isolated area. So. while Blackhawk might not be in a particularly high fire-danger area, if a neighboring community on the same grid is, then Blackhawk may be subjected to an outage.

Stressing that the frustrations surrounding PG&E are focused at management and not the employees on the ground who are working hard, Meyer said that installing underground infrastructure is safer but expensive and PG&E management seems resistant to hurting their bottom line.

“Let me just say, the weather events in Northern California are definitely different from what we’ve seen in the past,” Meyer said, noting the unique challenges the weather events have presented. “Things have changed for us and some of these things are climate- and weather-driven.”

Residents interested in learning more about the SRVFPD or fire evacuation preparedness can visit the district’s website at www.firedepartment.org.

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