SLO County fire departments are running out of money — will Templeton voters pay up?

Templeton’s fire department could be on the chopping block this month — voters have two weeks to decide whether to approve a special property tax that would fund the cash-strapped agency.

The community’s Fire and Emergency Services Department — like other fire protection agencies in unincorporated areas of San Luis Obispo County — is facing a $490,000 funding shortfall and will need additional money from residents to continue providing aid.

The county Clerk-Recorder’s Office sent out the first ballots in the vote-by-mail special election on July 29. Ballots are due on Aug. 27.

The ballot measure asks voters if they’re willing to pay $180 annually per property parcel, or $15 per month, to provide the fire department with an additional $486,000 per year.

This would allow the agency to provide around-the-clock service seven days per week, according to the ballot measure.

Countywide emergency services challenges

Fire departments in most unincorporated areas of the county are underfunded and face the prospect of raising more money or discontinuing service.

A county study of five such fire departments published in November 2018 shows San Miguel, Oceano and Santa Margarita are having similar funding problems.

Five Cities Fire Authority in the South County has also faced talks of disbanding as expenses have increased.

Cayucos voters in 2016 rejected a special tax to fund the community’s Fire Protection District, forcing it to dissolve in 2018.

The report noted agencies’ money issues will likely come to a head in the next five years, forcing difficult decisions about whether they’ll be able to continue responding to emergencies in their communities.

In addition, retaining volunteer firefighters has become challenging, due to the demands of their full-time jobs and additional required training.

Templeton fire department struggles

In Templeton, there’s only enough staffing to provide service from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., according to a Community Services District (CSD) report. The remaining nighttime hours are typically covered by firefighters who are available and able to stay at the station overnight.

In 2018, there were 101 uncovered nights of service — this has led to longer response times or an inability to respond to after-hours calls.

Community calls for service have increased 75% since 2010, and 60% of all calls are related to emergency medical incidents, according to the report.

Some firefighters also take seasonal jobs with other fire departments during the summer, cutting down on the number of people available to respond to emergencies, according to the ballot measure.

Templeton CSD officials attempted to secure additional property tax funding from the county, as only 8.4% of total collected property taxes goes to CSD operations. About two-thirds of that money goes toward the fire department, according to Fire Chief Bill White.

However, the county Board of Supervisors rejected the CSD’s request for additional money.

It hasn’t been determined how the community would get fire service if the department were disbanded. The district would likely have to negotiate with the county, Cal Fire and neighboring agencies.

The CSD report suggests contracting with Cal Fire would be challenging, as the Templeton area would most likely be serviced by an engine in Paso Robles that already covers a 60-mile area.

“You would be transferring 1,000 calls from Templeton to an already busy fire station,” White said.

During the last two years, Cal Fire could not respond to about 14 percent of 911 calls in Templeton because responders were busy with other incidents.

Templeton’s fire department represents an important fire protection resource in the North County, where emergency services are badly needed, White said.

He’s optimistic residents will recognize the need to maintain their local agency.

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from the voters,” he said.

For more information on the special election, visit slocounty.ca.gov/Departments/Clerk-Recorder or templetoncsd.org.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune

Lindsey Holden writes about housing, North County communities and everything in between for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. She became a staff writer in 2016 after working for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. Lindsey is a native Californian raised in the Midwest and earned degrees from DePaul and Northwestern universities.