By now, property owners in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, Halcyon and Oceano should have received a ballot asking whether they’ll support paying more for fire services.
The proposed assessment district would raise about $1 million a year for the Five Cities Fire Authority to maintain current staffing levels, create a reserve fund to replace fire engines and equipment, and improve dispatch services for about 37,700 residents.
Fire officials say the annual assessment would provide a stable source of funding and retain three firefighters and three fire engineers hired with a $1.2 million federal grant that expires in September.
But some critics question whether the joint fire department, which was promoted as a cost-saving measure, is really saving the communities money and wonder why fire officials are asking residents for money only four years after the authority was formed.
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A few residents also take issue with the way the funding measure was conceived, and believe the public was not made aware or given adequate opportunities to comment on it.
“If this was a business I could look at it and say you proposed something that didn’t work,” said Arroyo Grande resident Otis Page, who has suggested asking the Grand Jury to pursue an investigation of the authority’s handling of the measure.
Supporters, meanwhile, say the joint fire department has streamlined and improved services to the communities and is much less expensive than if each area had its own stand-alone department.
The exact cost per property is included on the individual ballots, which were mailed starting Feb. 14 to all property owners within the proposed district. They have 45 days to vote.
A public hearing will be held April 4 – the date that ballots are due – and continued to April 18, when results will be announced. It requires a simple majority to pass, with each ballot weighted according to the dollar amount of the proposed assessment to each owner’s property.
The joint fire department was formed in July 2010, several years after Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano started sharing personnel and equipment. At the time, officials from the three communities predicted long-term savings because they would share the costs of purchasing or replacing fire equipment, liability and managing personnel.
The three communities share the agency’s $3.6 million annual cost. Currently, Arroyo Grande puts a little more than $1.5 million toward fire services; Grover Beach’s share is about $1.2 million, and Oceano pays about $715,000. The amounts are based on population, calls for service, staffing levels and assessed property values.
The joint department has 23 sworn fire personnel and 25 reserve firefighters, including six employees funded with a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant.
Financial documents show that Arroyo Grande and Oceano are each paying slightly less money for fire services than they were in the 2006-07 fiscal year, when each community had its own stand-alone department. Grover Beach is now paying about $300,000 a year more than in 2006-07 because the city had to bring salaries and benefits up to par with Arroyo Grande’s employees, among other costs, officials said.
However, Grover Beach City Manager Bob Perrault said the community would be spending about $275,000 more than it currently is for fire services if the city had its own, stand-alone department.
“The value of consolidation is not just measured in dollars and cents,” Perrault said. “That’s certainly an important part but what it has allowed us … to improve our level of service from a person perspective.”
As an independent department, Grover Beach had six full-time firefighters and faced staffing difficulties if someone was injured, sick or on vacation, Perrault said. Now, fire administrators can move firefighters between stations to cover shifts as needed, lowering potential overtime costs.
Arroyo Grande City Manager Steve Adams said the city would be spending about $427,000 more if it currently maintained an independent department. Five Cities Fire Chief Michael Hubert said the total cost for fire services in the three communities has risen about 8 percent since the 2006-07 fiscal year.
Critics question need
In the meantime, critics of the assessment measure wonder why the fire authority didn’t establish a reserve fund to replace fire trucks and equipment or contribute more money to personnel when it was formed.
“There are better alternatives than putting the burden and blame on the property owners,” Page wrote in notes he compiled about the issue. He also faults Five Cities Fire for not including an opposition statement in its ballot materials (which is optional but not required), and worries that the $66 annual fee is inequitable to Oceano residents who may own properties that are assessed at lower values than some Arroyo Grande homes.
Page and fellow opponent Julie Tacker, who lives in Los Osos, suggested that Five Cities Fire apply for another grant to pay the six firefighter salaries, or consider other options such as contracting with Cal Fire.
Tacker said the Los Osos community’s decision to contract with Cal Fire “was the best decision the community has made.” Los Osos has budgeted about $2 million in operating expenses fire services in the current 2013-14 fiscal year.
Five Cities Fire officials said they could apply for another grant, but are hoping to establish a stable, long-term source of funding to improve fire services for the area.
The fire authority was formed to pool resources and provide “an acceptable level of service,” Adams said. “We did not want to ask the public for additional money to fund existing services but to enhance those services is a different thing,” he said.
The first payment would be on 2015 property tax bills. Owners of single-family homes on an acre of less would pay a maximum of $66 a year. Owners of multi-family dwellings would be assessed $49.24 per unit. Commercial, industrial and other properties are assessed based on parcel size. The Five Cities Fire board must hold a hearing each year to continue the assessment, approve a budget, and update a list of parcels and assessments. The board can adjust the annual rate for inflation not to exceed 4 percent each year.
TO GET A BALLOT
Ballots were mailed Feb. 14 and are due April 4. Property owners in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, Halycon and Oceano who have not received one should call the fire authority at 473-5490.