Cayucos Fire Department on verge of closure after vote to hand control to SLO County

Cayucos Fire Department is on the verge of closing after vote to turn control over to San Luis Obispo County.
Cayucos Fire Department is on the verge of closing after vote to turn control over to San Luis Obispo County. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The Cayucos Fire Department is at risk of being closed after the Cayucos Fire Protection District Board on June 1 voted to dissolve the district, initiating a process to hand over operations to San Luis Obispo County.

The move was met with vocal opposition from the Cayucos Firefighters Association, which issued a statement Friday afternoon condemning the vote.

“We believe that there were other options that were not properly turned over to the public for their input,” spokesman Mark Walton said in a Saturday interview.

The vote comes a year after Cayucos voters turned down Measure C-16, which would have allowed the mostly-volunteer fire department to hire full-time firefighters to address the department’s staffing shortfall at the cost of a $500 a year per household, a fivefold increase in the area’s current special tax assessment of $100.

“When that failed, it wasn’t a mandate to close the department,” Walton said.

The department currently utilizes 24 “volunteer” firefighters, who are paid when called into duty, in addition to a chief, assistant chief and two captains. It was operating with just 11 firefighters a year ago.

Nevertheless, with no additional revenue, the board was left with the decision of figuring out how to proceed.

It voted 2-1 at a May 17 meeting to turn over operations to the county at the cost of the $550,000 the area currently pays for its fire tax assessment. According to a citizens advisory committee summary provided to board members, this could result in Cayucos residents seeing little or no increase in their taxes in the short term “depending on negotiations with the board of supervisors.”

The Fire Protection District could negotiate with the county to retain some firefighters, Walton said.

The advisory committee warned that dissolving the fire protection district will see the loss of control and ownership of the fire department and its assets, could place the district “at the mercy of state labor negotiations with Cal Fire” and make the district vulnerable to a downgrade in services if the county “becomes unwilling to pick up estimated remaining costs or becomes unwilling to bear likely continued cost increases from Cal Fire.”

Walton said that board members did not present the public with all options, including a possible seasonal contract with Cal Fire, a “hybrid model” fire department using a combination of career and reserve firefighters or simply maintaining the status quo by increasing the fire tax to approximately $170 per household.

“We think there could have been a better process relative to this (decision),” Walton said.

The next move for the Cayucos Fire Protection District is negotiating a contract with county supervisors. In the meantime, the Cayucos Firefighters Association is hoping to spread the word about the possible closure of its department, Walton said.

“However, we still have an obligation to provide top-notch service to the community and will continue to do this,” he said.