If Cayucos voters turn down a tax-increase measure on the Nov. 6 ballot, they could find themselves without round-the-clock, in-town fire protection during the part of each year that’s not considered “fire season,” according to authorities.
The Cal Fire station would be unstaffed as of Nov. 7, until the next official fire season begins, likely in late spring.
The Cayucos Fire Protection District also covers the area but is staffed primarily by volunteers, who aren’t always available.
The special parcel tax, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass, would boost the cost to property owners to $25 a “unit” from $5. A unit is a measure of fire risk. Vacant lots count as one unit, the average house four units and restaurants, for example, 10 units.
A typical house owner would pay $100 per year under the new tax, up from $20 per year. That would boost revenues to about $250,000 a year, up from $50,000 annually using a rate that’s been in place since 1982.
Signs supporting Measure C are up in various downtown business windows, and no organized opposition has surfaced, according to part-time Cayucos Fire Protection District Chief Bill Radke, who also owns Cayucos Super Market.
Until a decade or so ago, the department had enough volunteers on call to staff the equipment for year-round emergencies.
Times have changed. The 15 or so volunteers aren’t available as often as they used to be, primarily because many have jobs in other communities.
“We can’t go into a fire unless we have four people there” on the engine, Radke said.
Since 2005, Cayucos Fire has paid Cal Fire to keep Station 11 staffed with firefighters during the nonfire season, an agreement that costs Cayucos about $225,000 a year, according to Rob Lewin, County/Cal Fire chief. He said it costs about $850,000 to keep a station open 12 months a year.
The Cayucos department no longer has enough income or reserve funds to cover the contract’s cost, Radke said, because of the state’s fiscal crisis and budget raids, declining real estate values and increasing costs of providing fire service.
If voters approve Measure C, “They’ll have uninterrupted fire protection,” Lewin said. If they turn it down, the Cayucos Cal Fire station “will close on Nov. 7,” and emergency response would be from the Cayucos volunteers, when they’re available, and fire crews from other communities, such as Morro Bay (eight miles away) and Cambria (13 miles away).
Cayucos has no dedicated ambulance service, and about 85 percent of Cayucos Fire’s annual calls (from 300 to 325 a year, Radke estimated) are to provide medical aid until an ambulance can arrive from out of town.
“This is a very tough situation,” Lewin said, because Cayucos Fire is “a volunteer fire department trying to survive.”
Measure C would help pay for off-season Cal Fire coverage and allow the Cayucos department to rebuild its reserves to cover emergencies and replace equipment.
Other communities, too, could be affected if the Cayucos Cal Fire station closes its doors in winter because those firefighters back up other departments on mutual-aid calls for large fires or emergencies.
“That would affect all the response along the coast,” said Mark Miller, chief of Cambria Fire Department. He said his department would have to fill the mutual-aid gap for other communities, and likewise, mutual aid for Cambria would come from farther away.
Mike Pond, Morro Bay’s fire chief, said he can’t say yet how failure of Measure C would affect Morro Bay.
“They have not come to me yet saying, ‘If this doesn’t pass, X, Y and Z will happen.’ I don’t know how their service will change. It’s a huge impact to their community but wouldn’t affect ours, except for the automatic aid that we get from them,” Pond said.