Voting deadline for Five Cities Fire assessment is extended after error

Ballots must be returned by April 18

clambert@thetribunenews.comApril 4, 2014 

Five Cities Fire Authority board members Joe Costello, Bill Nicolls and Karen White at Friday's meeting.

PETER KLEIN — Five Cities Fire Authority

Five Cities Fire Authority officials have extended for two weeks the voting deadline for a proposed assessment after discovering the wrong date had been mailed to property owners in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano.

Fire officials said an envelope containing the ballot, which was mailed to all property owners in those communities, mistakenly stated a return date of April 18 — not April 4 as intended, said David Hale, general counsel for the fire authority.

Fire officials decided to honor the extended voting period, Hale said. All other information given to property owners had an April 4 voting deadline.

Because of the error, a public hearing held Friday will continue on April 18. After that meeting, the League of Women Voters of San Luis Obispo County will finish tabulating the ballots and the results will be announced.

At Friday’s public hearing officials said they had received about 4,000 ballots out of the 11,690 mailed to property owners in mid-February.

The proposed assessment district would raise about $1 million a year, which fire officials said would help to maintain current staffing levels, create a reserve fund to replace fire engines and equipment, and improve dispatch services for about 37,700 residents.

They maintain that it would provide a stable source of funding and retain three firefighters and three fire engineers hired with a $1.2 million federal grant that expires in September.

But critics have questioned whether the joint fire department, which was promoted as a cost-saving measure, is really saving the communities money and wonder why fire officials are asking residents for money only four years after the authority was formed.

About 50 people attended Friday’s hearing, including a half dozen firefighters in uniform. Ten people spoke, with comments fairly evenly split for and against the proposed district.

Arroyo Grande resident Vince Petrie said he was opposed because the fire authority board — not the public — would decide each year whether to continue the assessment. The board would also be able to adjust the annual rate for inflation, not to exceed 4 percent each year.

“Who’s going to vote against something that puts money in your own pocket?” he said. “It should be in the hands of the voters.”

Arroyo Grande resident Otis Page, an outspoken critic of the proposal, grew upset when he was cut off after speaking three minutes.

Several other attendees offered him their time, but Page was not allowed to continue talking and left the meeting, saying: “This is continuing stonewalling of this issue and everyone should know it.”

A few other speakers offered support for the department, stating that the money is necessary to maintain a minimum level of service to the public.

“This measure is not to raise salaries,” said Arroyo Grande resident Jason Davis, a former part-time firefighter for the authority. “They are trying to do the best with what they have.”

The joint fire department was formed in July 2010, with the three communities sharing the agency’s $3.6 million annual cost.

The department has 23 sworn fire personnel and 25 reserve firefighters, including six employees funded with a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant.

If an assessment district is formed, owners of single-family homes on an acre or less would pay a maximum of $66 a year.

Owners of multifamily dwellings would be assessed $49.24 per unit. Commercial, industrial and other properties are assessed based on parcel size.

The first payment would be on 2015 property tax bills.

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