People on the water wait lists, tourism businesses and current residents would share the costs of retiring vacant lots in Cambria under a plan presented to services district directors Thursday, Dec. 14.
Meanwhile, directors — and Cambria residents — face another potential expense: replacing firefighters hired under a federal SAFER grant, which expires in March.
Add to that concerns over a dry December, and Cambrians have plenty on their plates these days.
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At a five-hour meeting of the Cambria Community Services District board, directors heard a report from the Buildout Reduction Program (BRP) Citizens’ Committee.
The panel of 10 citizens has worked for the past 20 months to identify lots that can be retired and identify ways for the district to purchase them; the report presented Thursday by committee member Mark Rochefort was the culmination of that work.
The county’s community plan for Cambria caps the community’s growth at 4,650 water connections, and the BRP panel identified 1,377 residential lots in addition to that number. They could be retired, the panel said, at a cost of $25 million in current dollars over 25 years, or $1 million a year.
A major portion of the committee’s work involved finding a way to fund that effort. The panel recommended raising:
▪ $400,000 a year from people on the water wait list by forming a Mello-Roos District, a special district within which a parcel tax can be assessed.
▪ $400,000 a year from current residences and businesses via an annual tax assessment of $100 per developed parcel.
▪ $200,000 a year via a 0.5 percent increase in the county’s business improvement district (CBID) fees assessed to proprietors of Cambria lodging businesses.
Directors took no action on the BRP report Thursday, but they and members of the public praised the committee’s work.
“They did an incredible job … looking primarily at funding sources,” District Counsel Tim Carmel said.
Elizabeth Bettenhousen, speaking during public comment, called it “one of the most coherent bureaucratic statements I’ve read in millennia. Well, that’s hyperbole — at least 10 years.”
Rochefort said the report assumes, based on conversations with San Luis Obispo County staffers, a growth rate of about 1 percent a year. He said that would leave Cambria with a total population of 7,700 to 10,500 (depending on the number of people per household) by the end of the process, 25 years down the line.
Cambria Fire Chief William Hollingsworth talked about the benefits of continuing to fund a fourth firefighter on the town’s engines.
Cambria’s been at that level of service for the past two years, thanks to a $396,252 federal grant the district received under the SAFER program (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response). That grant enabled the district to hire three additional firefighters, but it expires in March, after which the district is on its own in funding the positions.
The district, which faces a number of fiscal challenges, must decide whether to continue staffing levels at four firefighters per engine or return to the three-person crews in place prior to the grant.
Hollingsworth presented several arguments for maintaining the four-person standard, saying studies have shown fire crews are 13 percent more effective with four people than with three. Three-person crews, he added, are at a disadvantage in fighting fires: Under Cal-OSHA rules, he said, “we cannot send two people into a structure to fight a fire unless we have two people outside.”
There’s only so many times we can pick people’s pockets, even with their permission.
Amanda Rice, CCSD board president
In the past, he said, the department was able to rely on volunteer or reserve firefighters to boost its ranks. But requirements for reserve firefighters have become more stringent, which has discouraged local residents from filling reserve positions.
In 2000, Hollingsworth said, the district had 17 in-town reserve firefighters it could summon to go out on calls; that number today is down to just two.
“The decline of volunteerism, the decrease from 17 to two, means we simply don’t have firefighters in this community to respond,” he said.
Board President Amanda Rice said asking the community to accept a tax increase to continue SAFER staffing levels might be difficult, especially if the district also asks the community for funds to pay for the BRP proposals.
“We’ve got to balance the BRP tax with the possibility of a tax to support another firefighter,” she said. “There’s only so many times we can pick people’s pockets, even with their permission.”
Meanwhile, district General Manager Jerry Gruber reported that dry weather during December is raising the prospect of a return to drought conditions that existed before last winter’s rains broke a four-year spell.
Gruber said there’s been 70 percent less rain than expected so far this year. If water levels in the Windsor Bridge (WBE) well fall below 3 feet or Santa Rosa Creek wells dip lower than 10 feet, the district may have to consider a return to Stage 3 water restrictions, he said.
Director Harry Farmer said staff should encourage Cambria residents to “utilize the best conservation measures for water, especially considering the lack of it so far this year.”
▪ CCSD directors will meet at noon Tuesday, Dec. 19, to consider appointing someone or calling an election to fill a vacant seat on the board.
▪ Directors will hold their first regular meeting of 2018 at 2 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 18. The meeting will be one week earlier than normal to avoid a conflict with the Art & Wine Festival.
Both meetings will be at the Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St.