Five Cities Fire floats tax idea

The Five Cities Fire Authority is still in its infancy, but leaders of the South County fire agency are already talking about the next step: going to local voters to lock in long-term funding.

Fire officials are studying two ways to raise additional money to pay for fire services in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano: forming a fire protection district, which could include a parcel tax; or proposing an assessment. Both could increase property owners’ tax bills.

Fire officials said that additional funding would give the agency a stable funding source and allow it to meet national staffing standards by hiring additional firefighters.

It could also cap the amount that the three communities contribute to the fire authority, and possibly reduce the need for fire officials to seek consensus from each of the communities’ leaders on budgets and other issues.

The Five Cities Fire Authority was formed in July 2010, several years after Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano started sharing personnel and equipment. Now, the three communities share the agency’s estimated $3.6 million annual cost.

The authority has 15 full-time fire engineers and captains and about 25 reserve firefighters.

Interim Fire Chief Riki Heath, who is filling that role until the new chief, Joel Aranaz, starts Tuesday, said the fire authority’s staffing level is too low to meet a national standard of having at least 15 fire personnel respond to a residential structure fire within eight minutes.

Relying on reserve firefighters is difficult, he said, because they often hold full-time jobs aside from their work with the fire authority.

By hiring six firefighters, the agency could meet that threshold with assistance from County/Cal Fire, Heath said.

“We are understaffed and undercovered for our communities,” said PJ Ferguson, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4033.

Fire officials are seeking to raise around $1.2 million annually, through either a parcel tax or an assessment. Both would require local voter approval, though only property owners would be able to vote on an assessment.

Polling completed for the Five Cities Fire Authority last September shows that a majority of local residents would likely support a parcel tax or a benefit assessment, with a larger percentage indicating they would support a lower annual tax rate of $66 a year versus $93 a year.

However, a parcel tax would require approval by two-thirds of voters, which survey results indicated would be unlikely.

Fire officials are making the rounds to get feedback from the Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano boards. After that, the three-member fire authority board — comprising one representative from each community — will decide how to proceed.