Directors voted 5-0 on Thursday to accept a federal grant that could provide two more firefighters for Cambria over a two-year period and also approved an emergency permit allowing tree removal on district property.
But the bulk of the time during the Sept. 10 special meeting of the Cambria Community Services District board was devoted to district finances.
General Manager Jerry Gruber submitted a list of 17 ideas for saving money, while also stating that the district’s financial picture wasn’t as dire as previously estimated.
“The deficits aren’t anywhere near what we thought they would be, but we’re a long way from out of the woods,” he told the board and an audience gathered at the Veterans Memorial Building.
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“At the end of November, we should be about even on cash flow if things to the way we have projected,” district Budget Manager Patrick O’Reilly added.
Among steps Gruber listed that have been, or could be, taken to improve the budget was a reduction in the public information budget from $3,000 to $1,000 a month — a step he said had already been taken. (Some residents had previously criticized the district for hiring a public information officer.)
Another move the district has already made: renegotiating the fee for a rate study by Bartle Wells Associates downward by a total of $13,500.
Other ideas on Gruber’s list were in the form of suggestions, some of which were received more favorably than others.
One that drew a lot of attention was a proposal to move the district’s administrative offices to the Cambria Fire Department. Gruber said such a move could save the district $3,600, which it now pays in rent for its offices off Tamson Street, just north of Main Street and east of the Cookie Crock. He added that putting a receptionist at the fire station would improve community access there. (The doors are now routinely locked, and community members must ring a doorbell and wait to be admitted.)
“The proposed relocation of the government offices to the Cambria Fire Department is not feasible,” retired Pasadena firefighter Jerry Wood said during public comment. “I would say there is not adequate floor area in the fire department to house both operations.”
Some directors sought to find a middle ground, with Director Jim Bahringer suggesting that a staff member could be moved to the fire station to deal with the public and others might be relocated to the wastewater treatment plant.
Director Michael Thomp-son echoed that idea, stating that the district could make better use of the space available at the treatment plant.
Another suggestion on Gruber’s list involved reducing or eliminating AGP Video coverage of CCSD meetings, but none of the directors seemed eager to take that step.
Other items on the list included ongoing costs of litigating a lawsuit brought by LandWatch San Luis Obispo County over the Emergency Water Supply Project and $4.3 million in grant funding that’s being held up by a state requirement that the district update its groundwater management plan.
Gruber called the latter item “the single most important issue currently facing the CCSD.”
But updating the plan isn’t something that can be done overnight, district counsel Tim Carmel said.
“The process to adopt the groundwater management plan is procedurally very heavy,” he said. “It requires a significant amount of public input and several public hearings.”
Carmel said he hoped to have an updated timeline on the process for the board at its Sept. 24 meeting, with a goal to schedule a vote on adopting the plan in November.
In an email to The Cambrian on Monday, Gruber said the draft plan was completed.
Concerns over EWS
In response to a question from Rice, Gruber stated that the grant money should put the district back on good financial footing.
“Once we pay everything off, we’ll have between $2 (million) and $2.3 million back in reserve. Some people don’t want to hear that because it’s good news.”
Once the $4.3 million is released to the district, he added, “we’ll be in a pretty good financial situation. We’ll have almost the same reserve we had before we started the (Emergency Water Supply) project.”
Some in the audience, however, were unconvinced, with Cambria resident Tina Dickason declaring that the district was in “one hell of a mess.”
Julie Tacker of Los Osos suggested that the district should hire a bankruptcy consultant. “That $4.3 million will not save you,” said Tacker, a former member of the Los Osos Community Services District board.
Tacker later criticized the contract being paid to Dean Florez, the district’s lobbyist on the EWS project, who is being paid $102,000 over a year for his consulting services, calling the figure “obscene.”
Gruber acknowledged that there have been “significant cost overrides” on the project, but told the board he plans to turn the EWS on Sept. 15 and that “it’s doing exactly what we want it to do.”
The board voted 5-0 to accept a $396,525 federal grant to hire additional firefighters for two years. The grant was intended to hire three firefighters, but Cal Fire Chief Rob Lewin said the amount wouldn’t cover three positions.
The district estimated that the cost of hiring three firefighters would be between $45,000 and $165,000 more than the amount of the grant.
“There is no additional money in this grant cycle,” Lewin added. “If we wanted additional money, we’d have to apply for it in the next grant cycle.”
But that would have required the board to decline the current grant, which has already been awarded, and take its chances on a new application, he said.
He told the board that, although the amount of money in the grant was fixed, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had expressed a willingness to allow the district to hire fewer than three firefighters.
Another area of concern: The district would have to pay the firefighters up front, then apply for reimbursement through the grant.
Ultimately, concerns over the drought and fire-prone forest trumped worries that making up-front payments could cause cash-flow problems for the district. Directors voted 5-0 to accept the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire Emergency Response) grant.
The board voted 5-0 to approve an emergency permit to remove up to 300 dead or dying trees on district property.
“This permit does not help the person on the individually owned lot,” Lewin said. “This is only for trees on CCSD property.”