Five Cities Fire Authority lists pay raises, new engine among priorities

Five Cities Fire Authority Capt. Brian Leathers, right, discusses a fire engine's equipment readiness with firefighter Mike LoPresti inside the engine bay at Station 61 in Oceano in 2014.
Five Cities Fire Authority Capt. Brian Leathers, right, discusses a fire engine's equipment readiness with firefighter Mike LoPresti inside the engine bay at Station 61 in Oceano in 2014. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

The Five Cities Fire Authority presented a laundry list of needed improvements to its governing board on Friday — improvements that would cost $2.6 million over the next five years, department officials say.

The authority, formed in 2010 to consolidate Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano fire services, operates on a $3.7 million budget. Both cities and the community services district fund the agency, along with some outside grants.

The district has faced a series of financial troubles.

Last year, a $1.2 million federal grant expired that had been used to hire three full-time firefighters and engineers. Then property owners rejected a measure last April to create a special assessment district which would have raised about $1 million annually to keep those employees and pay for needed equipment.

The six employees were laid off.

On Friday, Fire Chief Steve Lieberman told the fire board that much of the department's equipment dates back to before the consolidation and is sorely in need of updating.

According to Lieberman, the department has two engines that will turn 20 years old in 2016, and its other engine, purchased in 2004, has cost $24,000 in repairs in the past two years. Parts for that engine are also becoming more difficult to find, because the manufacturer went out of business, adding to the costs for repairs.

The authority's self-contained breathing apparatus equipment (SCBA), which firefighters use when entering homes, is also scheduled to be replaced in 2017. The equipment was bought in 2002, and is recommended for a service life of 15 years.

Coupled with fewer personnel, the agency is struggling to provide services, Lieberman said.

"Short-term sacrifices have been going on for five years now," he said, noting that the agency doesn't have enough funding to sustain its current practices, and instead has to look for cuts and places where money can be freed up before approving new expenses. "In a way we are zero-based budgeting this thing, and we need to get away from that."

Friday's workshop was an effort to establish the department's priorities while crafting its annual budget.

At the meeting, fire board members Barbara Harmon, representing Arroyo Grande; John Shoals, representing Grover Beach; and Karen White, representing Oceano; discussed their top priorities and directed the department to begin crafting a preliminary budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

These priorities included the following:

  • Giving reserve firefighters a $4 per hour pay increase. Currently, the reserve firefighter program pays $10 to $12 an hour. A pay increase would cost approximately $120,000 annually, board treasurer Debbie Malicoat said.
  • Hiring a full-time battalion chief to be responsible for operations, training, prevention, administration, preparedness and duty coverage. This would cost approximately $186,000 annually.
  • Leasing a new fire engine. This would cost about $523,500 over eight years, with the first payment in 2016.
  • Entering into a formal agreement with the city of Grover Beach for dispatch services. Grover Beach has informally provided dispatch for the authority since last year, absorbing the costs into its own budget. Lieberman and Grover Beach Police Chief Jim Copsey are proposing the authority official contract with the city for about $149,000 annually.
  • The board also discussed long-term plans for the agency, saying that it would like the authority to pursue becoming an independent agency such as a special services district, so that it doesn't rely on approvals and funding from its member cities' governing bodies.

    "Hopefully we can continue growing so that we aren't the teenagers who have to go to dad and say, 'Gee dad, can I have a buck today?' " Shoals said at the end of the meeting.

    Other long-term priorities discussed were leasing a second fire engine ($523,500), hiring three engineers to work on the new engines ($371,000 annually), SCBA replacement ($500,000) and adding nine new firefighting positions ($900,000 annually).

    The authority is expected to have its budget completed for review sometime in May.

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