Proposed assessment district to fund fire services is rejected in South County

Money from the proposal would have helped upgrade fire engines and equipment

clambert@thetribunenews.comApril 18, 2014 

A vote to form a property assessment district to raise funds for the Five Cities Fire Authority has failed.

Faces fell as the voting results were announced Friday afternoon at a meeting of the agency’s board of directors.

Just 40.3 percent of property owners returned a ballot in favor of paying more each year to fund fire services for the joint department covering Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano. The other 59.6 percent voted against the proposal, which would have raised about $1 million a year.

Of a total of 11,690 ballots mailed to property owners in February, just 4,594 were returned — a 39 percent voter turnout.

“I thought it might be a little closer than that,” fire Chief Michael Hubert said after the meeting. “I think things are probably still tough out there for people.”

No opponents spoke during the meeting Friday. But during a phone interview, outspoken critic Otis Page of Arroyo Grande said he was staggered by the result, and then called for the three fire authority board members to resign.

“They sent Hubert out to sell this deal and that obligation truly rested with the board,” Page said.

He said that some residents may have voted against the assessment district because they’re facing other rate increases for water, sewer and garbage.

Fire officials said the money would have provided a stable source of funding, created a reserve fund to replace fire engines and equipment, and improved dispatch services. It also would have helped to keep three firefighters and three fire engineers hired with a $1.2 million federal grant that expires in September.

Now, Hubert said the department will reapply for the federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant. Hubert sounded unsure when asked what would happen to the positions if the grant application is unsuccessful.

Even if the application succeeds, it was not known Friday whether the money would be available soon enough to seamlessly retain those positions. Hubert said he plans to bring a preliminary budget for the upcoming fiscal year to the fire authority board’s next meeting.

The fire board met Friday to accept any other ballots and officially close the voting period. The results were announced immediately after that, and the meeting ended on a gloomy, frustrated note.

“I’m very disappointed,” said fire Capt. Bart Pearson, who works at the Oceano station. “We were really counting on community support, but they spoke and we’ll have to keep providing the best service we can with what we’ve got.”

Critics of the assessment district had questioned whether the joint fire department, which was promoted as a cost-saving measure, is really saving the communities money and wondered why fire officials asked for money only four years after the authority was formed.

The department was created in July 2010, with the three communities sharing the agency’s $3.6 million annual cost. Under the proposed assessment, owners of single-family homes on an acre or less would have paid a maximum of $66 a year.

 

Tribune staff writer Brenna Swanston contributed to this report.

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