Five Cities fire board moves to form property assessment district

Starting in mid-February, property owners in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, Halcyon and Oceano will have a chance to vote on whether to pay more for fire services.

The three-member Five Cities Fire Authority board voted unanimously Friday to start the process to form an assessment district to raise $983,466 a year.

The money would help pay for additional full-time firefighters, replace fire engines and equipment, and improve dispatch services for about 37,700 residents in the South County communities.

“We’re talking about increasing and improving the level of service,” said board member Joe Costello, who sits on the Arroyo Grande City Council.

The extra money would also help the Fire Department retain its current staffing level once a two-year, $1.2 million federal grant expires in September 2014. The agency hired three firefighters and three fire engineers with the money.

If the assessment vote fails, “we would continue to do the best we could with the resources we have,” Five Cities fire Chief Mike Hubert said. “We might not be as efficient, but we would continue to do the best service possible.”

If the assessment passes, property owners of single-family homes would pay $66 a year, with the additional cost showing up on property tax bills next year. The annual cost would vary for owners of multifamily units and commercial properties.

The exact cost per property will be included on individual ballots, which will be mailed starting Feb. 14 to all property owners within the proposed district. They’ll have 45 days to vote.

When balloting ends April 4, a public hearing will be held, and the votes will be counted. It requires a simple majority to pass.

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

The budget doesn’t provide money to replace engines or equipment, or to improve dispatch services. Fire officials say the annual assessment would provide a stable source of funding for those needs and others.

In the past, some South County residents have questioned whether the combined department actually saves the individual communities money. Only Los Osos resident Julie Tacker voiced concerns Friday, wondering later how the additional cost would impact Oceano residents.

Grover Beach Councilman Bill Nicolls, a fire authority board member, said he was looking into how much each community would pay if it had its own department.

“I’m very confident that it’s going to show that we’re spending less now than if we were three separate departments,” Costello said.

Added Karen White, an Oceano Community Services District board member: “I think it’s going to be up to the taxpayers, and I think they will support it.”