San Luis Obispo County agreed to take over fire protection service in Cayucos if a plan for the Cayucos Fire Protection District to dissolve is finalized.
The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously agreed that the county through its contract with Cal Fire will provide a fully-staffed structure fire engine at Station 56 at an annual cost of $912,000, and the county will pay for necessary renovations of the station.
The Board also directed staff to form a blue-ribbon committee to assess fire protection needs across the county.
The Cayucos Fire Protection District Board filed an application to dissolve with the Local Agency Formation Commission because of a lack of volunteers and limited revenue to pay for services, which at times left the community dependent on mutual aid from neighboring departments. LAFCO will hold a public hearing about the dissolution of the district at future date.
The county is not legally obligated to provide fire service, but many pointed to a civic and moral obligation.
“We have a responsibility to find the funds to do what we do elsewhere in the county,” said Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who repeatedly noted that Cayucos homeowners pay a $100 special tax annually to help defray the cost of fire protection.
Cayucos, a community of many older homes positioned close together, has a “huge potential fire problem,” Fire Protection District board President Steve Beightler said. “If we get a fire on a windy day, it could take out an entire neighborhood."
Beighler said the district has enough money to make it through the end of the current fiscal year, and possibly a month beyond that. But it isn’t just money that’s the problem, he said; the department also lacks staff, especially when reserve firefighters leave in the summer to take jobs with CalFire and the U.S. Forest Service.
And it isn’t just Cayucos experiencing problems. Other communities, including Templeton and Oceano, are as well.
“Oceano’s situation is similar… we could be knocking at your door at a future date,” said Paavo Ogren, general manager of the Oceano Community Services District.
Karen White, a director of the Oceano CSD’s board, suggested convening a countywide commission to study fire service in unincorporated areas — an idea supervisors wound up supporting.
“I think this board needs to do something before there’s a Santa Rosa problem,” said White, referring to the devastating fires in Sonoma County.
All five supervisors agreed fire service must be a priority, but were worried about where the money would come from in a tight budget year.
“This is a tough one for me,” said Supervisor Debbie Arnold. “Property taxes should be prioritized so every area has adequate fire protection. We do have to figure out how we’re going to pay for this.”
The Board was presented with four options for levels of services is could provide to Cayucos, ranging from full-time staff to cover the community to compelling Cal Fire to respond to emergencies from the closest fire station.
"The model that Cayucos is built on is an old model where you had volunteers in town to defray the cost and that just doesn't work anymore," Gibson said.
The Cayucos Fire Protection District has been hurting for resources for years. A proposal to increase the area's special fire tax from $100 to $500, which would have increased the department's revenue from $550,000 to $1.2 million to cover a full-time, fully staffed fire department, was rejected by voters in 2016.