Will thousands of South County residents agree to pay more in property taxes to fund additional firefighters and equipment upgrades for the Five Cities Fire Authority?
That’s the $1.4 million question.
The fire authority — the joint department covering Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano — could go to voters in those communities next year with a parcel tax measure to give it a stable funding source, replace engines and equipment, improve dispatch services and keep six firefighters hired with a federal grant that will expire next year.
If the fire authority’s governing board moves ahead with a special tax, it would need to convince two-thirds of registered voters still weathering the effects of an economic recession that paying another $60 or more a year is necessary and will increase public safety.
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The Five Cities Fire Authority was formed in July 2010, several years after Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano started sharing personnel and equipment. The three communities currently share the agency’s $3.6 million annual cost.
Last summer, the agency received a two-year, $1.2 million federal grant and hired three firefighters and three fire engineers, adding a full-time firefighter to its Arroyo Grande station and a full-time fire engineer to the Oceano station.
The fire authority is able to provide a better service with the additional personnel, said Eric Lokkart, a fire engineer hired with the grant money. It helps firefighters try to reach a standard of having at least 14 personnel arrive at certain types of calls like residential structure fires within eight minutes of leaving the station.
“People are expecting well-educated, trained personnel when they call 911, and they want them there quick,” Lokkart said. “In order to meet those needs we have to continually progress.”
The grant money runs out in September 2014, and fire officials hope to replace the money with a portion of a tax increase that would first need to be approved by voters. If that effort fails, the six employees face layoffs, Chief Joel Aranaz said.
If voters approved a $1.44 million annual tax — which would cost a single-family residence $63 a year, and $445 per commercial parcel — the fire authority could also hire a battalion chief, a fire mechanic (who might be shared with another city) and increase a part-time secretary to full-time.
A smaller portion, about $342,000 a year, would go toward replacing equipment and apparatus such as fire engines and other vehicles.
The money would not increase firefighters’ salary or benefits, several firefighters noted at recent public meetings.
Nonetheless, firefighters got a small taste of some of the push-back they could receive from voters when they visited the Arroyo Grande City Council recently to update it on the proposal.
“People are feeling the bite out there,” Mayor Tony Ferrara said. “They’re getting nickel and dimed to death and so their knee-jerk reaction with something like this is to just say no. If we’re going to sell this, we have to make sure we have everything working in our favor.”
The Arroyo Grande council unanimously voted to support the concept of a parcel tax without a sunset clause, but wants additional analysis to show how fire authority officials reached the $1.4 million number.
Council members also want to see what a lower tax could pay for; and recommended that the fire authority include some accountability measures to show the public how the money is being spent.
The Grover Beach City Council also supported the parcel tax concept without a sunset date, as did the Oceano Community Services District.
Aranaz will come back to the Arroyo Grande council will more information May 28. The fire authority board — comprised of one representative from each community — could in June consider putting a parcel tax before voters.
If the board moves ahead, the 21,479 registered voters in those three communities could consider the tax on the June 2014 primary ballot.