Cayucos Fire weighs future after voters reject tax hike

The Cayucos Fire Department may disband after voters rejected a special tax to fund its operations.
The Cayucos Fire Department may disband after voters rejected a special tax to fund its operations. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The fate of the Cayucos Fire Department remains uncertain after voters on Tuesday rejected a proposed special tax assessment by a large margin.

Cayucos Fire in March put forward Measure C-16, which would have raised the area’s special fire tax to $125 per unit. A single-family home is made up of four units, meaning many households would have paid $500 per year to fund the Fire Department — a significant jump from the $100 homeowners pay now.

Voters on Tuesday turned down that proposal, with 60 percent of residents voting no.

Paid on-call firefighters staff Cayucos Fire, with some help from Cal Fire, which has a station in town. Twenty firefighters are needed to properly staff the Fire Department, but Cayucos has been operating with just 11, leading officials in October to consider disbanding the department prior to proposing the tax.

Fire officials wanted to use the additional money the tax would have generated to hire a full-time firefighting staff. Now, it’s unclear what will happen to the struggling department, which functions on a $500,000-per-year budget and has difficulty attracting enough firefighters because of low pay and extensive training requirements.

Mark Walton, the Cayucos Firefighter Association’s vice president and spokesman, said he thinks voters were in “sticker shock” over the proposed tax levy.

“It’s expensive to run a fire department,” he said.

The Fire Department doesn’t plan to immediately shut down, Walton said. He said officials will meet on July 7 to evaluate their next steps.

In a statement, the Firefighters Association thanked voters for the opportunity to present their tax assessment and said officials would continue to search for “stable revenue sources.” The Fire Department will remain normally staffed for the time being.

Steve Beightler, a Cayucos resident and member of the Citzens Advisory Council, said he and some of his neighbors actively campaigned against the additional tax.

The extra costs outweighed the value of local fire service, Beightler said.

“Nowhere in California that I can find does anyone pay $500 in tax for fire service,” he said.

Although Beightler said he’s grateful to Cayucos firefighters for their service to the community, he said he thinks it’s time for the department to disband.

Should that occur, San Luis Obispo County would likely contract all services out to Cal Fire using money from property taxes, the current special fire tax and the county’s general fund.

“County fire service to me is still local,” Beightler said. “That still is local enough control.”

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27