Five Cities firefighting costs escalating
February 25, 2014
By JOSH FRIEDMAN
The cities of Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach and the community of Oceano merged their fire departments in 2010 with the intent of saving money, but the resulting Five Cities Fire Authority (FCFA) may soon cost residents more than their original agencies did.
The merger of the three fire departments saves residents of the communities a combined total of approximately $300,000 yearly, according to Five Cities Fire Authority Chief Mike Hubert. But, the Fire Authority is currently asking voters to adopt an assessment fee totaling more than $1 million annually.
“The ballot measure is for increased services,” Hubert said when asked how the FCFA would continue to save residents money.
Hubert also said that he conservatively estimated the annual savings created by the 2010 merger and that the individual cities estimated more in savings.
If adopted, the assessment will impose a $66 fee on all properties in the three communities. The fee can increase annually due to a 4 percent cost of living adjustment built into the assessment.
The FCFA board would determine each year whether to grant the 4 percent increase. The board consists of a representative of both the Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach city councils and the Oceano Community Services District board. Currently, Arroyo Grande Councilman Joe Costello, Grover Beach Council Bill Nichols and Oceano CSD director Karen White sit on the board.
Upon creation in 2010, the fire authority had a budget of under $3.4 million. Within two years, the budget increased nearly $1 million to more than $4.3 million. If the assessment passes, the budget will likely rise above $4.5 million in the upcoming fiscal year.
Critics equate the proposed assessment to a bailout because the fire authority is asking the public to replace one-time funds used to hire firefighters.
In 2012, the FCFA obtained a two-year, $1.2 million grant from FEMA. While applying for the grant, the fire authority understated its revenue from its three partner agencies, according to city and community service district financial statements.
The FCFA then used the grant to hire six firefighters. The grant expires in September, and the fire authority says it needs the assessment in order to retain the firefighters.
“We’d like to keep that personnel,” Hubert said.
The FCFA also needs to replace a fire engine and other old equipment, according to an engineer’s report on the assessment. If the assessment passes, the agency is likewise promising an improved dispatch system.
Critics of the fire authority’s financial management also allege that the agency is campaigning for the assessment to pass. The FCFA mailed five-page booklets along with all ballots earlier this month that include pictures of firefighters at work and a statement on why the funding measure is necessary.
The fire authority also created a Facebook page last summer, which it has used to promote the proposed assessment.
Prior to the distribution of the ballots, Arroyo Grande resident Otis Page submitted an opposition statement to the ballot measure and asked Hubert to include it in the mailers to property
“It is consistent with fair practices that pro and con statements are normally attending any issues of grave importance to the citizens,” Page wrote to Hubert.
The fire authority’s counsel said there was no reason to include an opposition statement, Hubert said.
Critics also accuse the agency of having pressured its board into placing the proposed assessment on the ballot. About 25 firefighters showed up in uniform to a late December board meeting on the assessment.
“You have a whole bunch of guys in uniform who you don’t want to tell no, looking at you,” said Los Osos resident Julie Tacker. “I think it’s intimidating for board members.”
Property owners in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano received the assessment ballots earlier this month. They have until April 4 to turn in the ballots. A majority vote will determine whether or not the assessment passes.
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