By Mark A. Diaz
In January 2018, the Oceano Community Services District stated that they would research the possibility for a new tax to address the growing cost of staffing the Five Cities Fire Authority (FCFA) with firefighters and other budget requirements. Paavo Ogren, Oceano Community Services District general manager, said that although his staff was prepared to initiate plans for a special tax ballot in November 2018, he could not recommend moving forward with it.
“I stated to the board that I could not recommend proceeding with the special tax election in November,” said Ogren. “The primary reason is that there is too much uncertainty that exists right now over what future service levels will exist if a tax is approved versus one that is not approved.”
The uncertainties Ogren referred to are the ongoing negotiations between the FCFA with OCSD, and the cities of Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach. Also in the mix is San Luis Obispo County’s newly commissioned study to address fire and emergency response of the in five unincorporated communities including Oceano, Cambria, San Miguel, Templeton and Santa Margarita. Despite budget impacts, Ogren is confident that the OCSD can fund its share of the FCFA responsibilities until June 2020, which would give ample time to for negotiations and the study to be complete and allow the community to make a well-informed decision when the time comes.
“The Board generally recognized the importance of addressing the uncertainties prior to talking to voters about a special tax,” said Ogren.
New taxes are always a difficult item to introduce to voters, even for critical operations such as first responder services. Ogren stated that to date there have been ten ballot fire-tax measures introduced throughout California with the majority of the measures failing to get 50 percent of the approval vote. Cambria failed to pass such a tax in last June.
“It’s hard to go to voters and say there’s not enough money if you haven’t demonstrated that you’re implementing the cost controls that need to be implemented,” said Ogren.
The FCFA adopted a five-year strategic plan in September 2017 that initiated the move to staff facilities with more full-time firefighters. Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and OCSD recently approved the plan. According to the proposal to fund the fiscal year 2018/19, each city was required to contribute additional monies; Arroyo Grande providing $ 2,523,661, Grover Beach providing $1,798,108 and the OCSD providing $987,362. The plan stated that the fire chief would operationally manage staffing shortages with updates provided to the board of directors. Such staffing shortages may result in temporary closure or reduced staffing at fire stations.
In 2014, with the dissolution of the Arroyo Grande police dispatch center, the City of Grover Beach agreed to provide fire dispatching services to the City of Arroyo Grande as well. Since 2014, the Grover Beach Communications Center has been the sole provider of emergency communication services for the Five Cities Fire Authority. However, Grover Beach adopted a resolution that authorizes the mayor to approve an agreement with the FCFA to provide emergency communication services from July 1, 2018, until October 1, 2018.
The FCFA was first established in 2010 by the City of Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and the Oceano Community Services District (OCSD) to serve as a first responder to fire emergency as well as community safety programs such as weed abatement and Fourth of July Fireworks programs.
The FCFA was not available for comment.