Five Cities Fire Authority never considered Cal Fire comparison

March 5, 2014
Julie Tacker

Julie Tacker

OPINION By JULIE TACKER

In a well-publicized, “cost saving” effort the Five Cities Fire Authority (FCFA) was formed in July of 2010; combining fire services from Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano. Not once, before or after, the formation has the agency look to the economies of scale offered by contracting services with Cal Fire, which has training, equipment and statewide resources that could reduce costs even further.

The apparent “cost savings” have been to the two cities general funds, as they were able to off load their responsibilities to the Authority. Oceano, on the other hand, has no discretionary funds and by relinquishing their responsibility for fire they lost a large contribution to their administration fund. Leaving the little agency to recover losses by increasing the administrative draw from their water and sewer funds, reducing those funds ability to address needed infrastructure improvements.

Upon the formation of the authority it was obvious to those closest to the information (i.e. city administration, board members and FCFA staff) that FCFA was not sustainable on its own and needed additional revenue. The authority was “properly positioned so that it could take the step to develop revenue augmentation in a manner that would be equally shared by the communities for authority services” as stated in a recent City of Grover Beach staff report.

The formation of the FCFA didn’t include sinking funds for equipment, apparatus, or expanded staff including a fire marshal, part-time mechanic and clerical aide; instead of turning back to the member agencies to fund those needs or what’s been done these last three-plus years, is go without. Within its first year FCFA considered forming a fire protection district, giving it the ability to raise taxes. That idea was met with a resounding “no” from the members unwilling to turn over complete control and implement another layer of government.

In February 2012 the FCFA applied for a SAFER grant, these one-time monies are funded by FEMA and are intended to put firefighters back to work after the recent recession resulted in many layoffs around the country. FCFA’s grant application depicted a funding scenario that gave the appearance the authority was severely underfunded, by approximately $445,000, to provide basic fire service. In June of that year, the authority was awarded $617,511 for personnel and $565,182 for fringe benefits, a nearly 50/50 split, to cover costs for just six firefighters over two years, sun setting in September this year.

Desperate to retain the SAFER grant funded firefighters, FCFA hired several consultants to identify funding sources for the ongoing expense. Through a community survey the consultants checked the ‘taxation temperature’ of the three communities; finding the palate for additional taxes topped out right at $66 a year. Another consultant has engineered an assessment district; assigning each and every property served by FCFA a fire benefit assessment based on parcel size and type of land use. The return postage paid, public record ballots hit mailboxes in med-February. Single family homes will be assessed $66 the first year, with the potential to increase by 4 percent each year in perpetuity. If approved by the property-owner-only vote, the assessment may reach $94 by year ten.

Decision makers never considered the inequity of charging $66.00 for a home in Oceano whose median household income (MHI) is $34,404, Grover Beach, MHI, $44,099 and Arroyo Grande, MHI, $48,236. $66 hits pocketbooks very differently as the demographics of each community differ greatly. The affirmative vote from the more affluent communities will no doubt outweigh the vote of the less fortunate.

What also wasn’t considered was the three communities are also facing a rate increase from the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District they share. Expensive upgrades at the plant and cost recovery for the $1.1 million fine and legal expenses incurred for the sewage spill of 2010 will be before the ratepayers later this year.

The level of service the three communities receive does not provide for paramedic services, begging the question perhaps even more funds are needed to be fully outfitted. Currently, advanced life support services are met through the agreement with San Luis Ambulance based out of Arroyo Grande. The emergency medical technicians from FCFA do all they legally can until paramedics arrive. The assessment proposed expressly prohibits funding of paramedic services, equipment or apparatus. If the communities wanted to increase their level of service to include paramedic responders, another funding source would need to be found, certainly at a higher rate.

FCFA is legally prohibited from advocating for the assessment. They cannot expend any public resources supporting the assessment. The firefighters themselves can campaign in favor of the assessment, but should only do so on their own time, when out of uniform. Yet, you will find not only the postage paid return envelope for the ballot, but the accompanying informational material depicts photos of their firefighters, the guys we trust and appreciate, bordering on ‘feel good’ campaign material. The Chief is making the rounds at the service clubs, “informing” citizens of the assessment. A promotional Facebook page for FCFA was created this past summer, the photos uploaded tug at your heartstrings as they show neighbors in the most tragic moments of their lives.

A request for public hearings at each of the agencies has been denied. An effort to have a piece of contrary information included in the ballot material was also denied. The engineers report and cost breakdown of the first $1 million received reveals that the implementation of the assessment is 10 percent with an approximate $15,000 bonus to the consultant should the assessment pass.

The public has the right to more information. The FCFA really hasn’t enjoyed cost savings of any real significance since its formation. In 2001, its budget was $3.4 million down from the year before by $150,000, but has only gone up each year since.

Voters have the right to change their vote all the way up to the April 4 public hearing where the ballots will be counted.

All things considered, the most prudent thing for the FCFA to do is request a quote from Cal Fire to compare “apples and apples” to dollar for dollar services before any such assessment is levied. In this high priced world we live in, an assessment may be imminent, but to what degree?

Julie Tacker has served on the Los Osos Community Services District Emergency Services Advisory Committee since 2004 when Cal Fire was contracted to serve the community of 14,500.

 

 


44 Comments

  1. SloBus says:

    While the article seems to be well written, it is well written with extreme bias. What the article does not include is the history behind who drove the talks of a consolidated fire district. It was Pismo Beach that initiated the talks of a consolidated fire department. The initial report paid for by Pismo Beach indicated that it would be more cost effective to merge fire departments, rather than contract with Cal Fire. That is where this all began.

    Pismo Beach pays Cal Fire 2 million a year for contract services; however, pismo beach is still on the hook for apparatus, stations, and their firefighting reserve program. The Cal Fire Contract in Pismo Beach is only for full-time staffing. Also note that the shell beach fire station is one of the first engines to LEAVE when a fire breaks out in the state. Also please note that when there is a medical emergency in the Huasna Valley, the Pismo Beach fire engine LEAVES town to go to Huasna. Understand that PISMO BEACH PAYS to send a fire engine outside of PISMO BEACH, tell this to your child who is choking on a chicken bone as the engine drives right by and out of sight, only to return an hour later after finding out that an older woman in Huasna accidentally activated her Medical Alert Bracelet and there was no medical emergency.

    Also while CalFIRE does have paramedics, they also hire convicted felons who have served time in jail, as advanced first aid firefighters.

    The FCFA has 3 stations with 10 firefighters and 1 Chief on duty 24/7, 3 of which are part-time FFs…sounds like they are doing a bang up job operating within a tight budget, serving approx 50,000 residents. Pismo has 2 stations with 4 to maybe 6 people on duty every day and they serve only 8000 residents. Sounds like a 2 million dollar cal fire contact is a bit much for Pismo, maybe they should get a quote from the FCFA for services. Furthermore the services provided in Los Osos include 3 full-time firefighter and 1 part time firefighter every day to serve a population of 15,000 residents. Dont forget that now this Los Osos Cal Fire engine automatically responds outside of Los Osos for calls within the county lands (Cal Fire Response Area).

    If I could pay an additional $66 a year to first responders that I knew would be in my town when/if I needed them, I would do it in a heart beat. $66 a year is probably less a year than the author spends driving to other cities and districts council meetings being a nosy neighbor.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 4

  2. Julie says:

    Tuesday night, Arroyo Grande City Council is slated to vote their 42 properties in favor of the assessment. The item in on their Consent Calendar, meeting is at 6:00pm Tuesday night at the Council Chambers.

    See you there.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

    • falconbh says:

      Thanks for the important update on this Tax Increase.

      I do not believe they should vote on this item. Let the people decide the election.
      Taxpayers paid for this property and I see it as just another conflict of interest and abuse of power if they vote on the very election they approved.

      If they do vote, I hope they at least have the courage to remove it from the consent agenda and have a staright up and down for the record and let all the residents see how their elected represenatives of the people voted on this very devisive tax increase.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  3. 2much says:

    This is a well written story. It underscores the lack of cooperation in the firefighting community. It begs to ask…why not contract with Cal Fire? It seems that we would have better service without reasonably reducing response time. Those who would like to continue their individual “Empires” will try to scare the public into believing that there is a higher risk of loss of life or property, but I say not so.

    I, for one, would like to see how many ACTUAL fires or life threatening calls go out to these agencies…an audit, in an attempt to determine need for additional staff ( or reduction of current staff). This audit needs to give value to potential for loss of life or limb, not “Padding Stats” for a scratched knee or broken finger.

    I’m pretty sure the ambulance company staffs Paramedics, so why roll out the firefighters, with costly fire trucks and highly paid staff, where no “Fire” has the potential to exists?

    We need to stop writing a blank check and begin to be fiscally responsible rather than having our taxes (the money each of us earn) raised without real justification.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 9

  4. MarkGB says:

    Shell Beach is a part of the city of Pismo Beach. Some of the snooty people that reside in Shell Beach will never admit to this fact.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

  5. Reality Check says:

    Increase 4% per year FOREVER!

    Very poor sportsmanship to require property owners to give over such a blank check. Does anyone else think that a mailed ballot off the regular election cycle smacks of shady dealing? Why not have it on the primary or November ballot???? I smell the stench of smoke filled rooms. Is it a fire? Or??????

    As I recall, the cities and the fire personnel rejected the idea of joining Cal Fire because they were fearful that they might not have as good a deal for their income, seniority and pension if they converted their employment to Cal Fire. We all love our Firefighters, police and public safety folks. They dedicate their lives to keeping us safe. That affection and appreciation should NOT extend to the misguided need to make unwise decisions. The fire authority used one time FEMA funds to pretend that all was well and led decision makers down the garden path. Now we see that it was only a rouse to create a bureaucracy destined AND doomed to spiral in increased costs.

    Pismo Beach was bashed (I recall Adam Hill calling them uncooperative) for not joining the scheme to create a fire authority. The PB staff and council were able to keep a clear head and withstand the bashing to do what was right for PB. Cal Fire has administrative support, equipment, supplies, training and many additional supports that make contracting with Cal Fire a winning choice.

    How many recall the violated feeling after realizing that you’ve lost your wallet to a pick pocket? Is this farce of a ballot measure any different?????

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 6

    • Julie says:

      Five Cities Fire is surrounded by Cal Fire at Pismo, Shell Beach, Avila, SLO Co. Airport, Mesa, Nipomo, State Parks contracts with them to cover the dunes and OHV beach, they often access through the Phillips 66 property to get to calls on the Sand Highway.

      Having all these assets so close can only mean economies of scale and new opportunities for cross training and promotions throughout the state. Their firefighters have the ability to be called to big fires in the summer; giving them more work all year round.

      Cal Fire is a great career choice. The ratepayer benefits from the choice. Come on AG, GB and OCSD, ask for a quote, the numbers don’t lie.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 9

      • slojo says:

        Are you on CalFire’s payroll? Just FYI, probably about 9 out of 10 firefighters who work for CalFire are using that as a stepping stone in their career to get to real fire departments. CalFire is great for rural areas, not well populated cities with tons of tourists.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 18

        • Julie says:

          “Tons of tourists” like Oceano Dunes, Pismo, Avila, Cambria and Cayucos — eh um, all served by Cal Fire.
          Have you seen these communities on the 4h of July?

          Nope, I’m not on the Cal Fire payroll. I am on the Emergency Services Advisory Committee for the Los Osos Community Services District and have been nearly 10 years.

          Forming the FCFA is what got me to the podium for the first time in Oceano back in 2010…I asked if they had ever considered Cal Fire, they still haven’t and until they do, I will be convinced that the community’s are not being given a fair comparison and a choice in how their money is being spent.

          It’s about accountability. What’s best for the ratepayer?

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 7

        • slomugwump says:

          slojo, your arguments may carry more weight if they were factual and not biasd. Your statement about 9 out 10 Cal Fire firefighters just on their way to a “real fire department” is not only absolutely not true; it is incredibly disrespectful of hard working dedicated excellent lifelong career firefighters that work for Cal Fire. Cal Fire can and does provide every level of fire protection whether urban or rural. So please make your arguments but don’t disrespect hard working citizens that are competently doing their job every day.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 5

          • Bugcatcher says:

            slomugwump,

            You are absolutely right on point and correct, you might read my post under slojo’s post on 3/6/14 @ 8:55, Take Care,
            Bugcatcher

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

        • wssailor says:

          FYI slojo. CAL FIRE is the largest fire department in San Luis Obispo County, the state, and one of the largest in the nation. It is the real fire department. It is California’s Fire Department, and it is the California State Fire Marshal (responsible for training all fire departments in California). CAL FIRE provides the training classes for all of the department in SLO County, it runs the county USAR team, the crash/rescue at the airport, and provides paramedic services out of four stations. A level of service much higher than what is currently being provided with FCFA and it does it at a cost savings, due to a concept educated people know as economy of scale. Educate yourself sir.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 3

  6. SLO_Johnny says:

    The Five Cities shouldn’t even be five separate cities. Shell Beach and Pismo Beach should be combined into one city. Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, and Oceano should be combined into a second city. All of the duplicate mayors, city council members, fire chief, police chiefs, city clerks, etc.. could be eliminated.

    It’s is unlikely that Cal Fire will offer some type of discount for the cost of fire protection. The costs for pensions and benefits will be included in the bill and they charge to keep equipment and personnel available at all times. Fire Departments in our area require special training because of Diablo Canyon and the need to fight brush fires along the urban-wildland interface. That costs money and people with that extra training want to be paid well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 5

  7. kayaknut says:

    Still waiting for my ballot………..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

    • Julie says:

      Seriously? Have you called the FCFA to let them know you haven’t received it? I have heard of others who have not received theirs.

      I have looked over the assessment roll. Some APN’s are missing altogether. Some properties are assessed at less than the cost of the stamp to mail the bill. I have asked what the rationale behind those are, and received no response.

      With so many questions still unanswered, how can this assessment will be valid?

      Again, I encourage the voters to go to their council’s and let their opinions be known. This “tax first and answer questions later” is undemocratic.

      They do not have to accept the results and can get the quote needed from Cal Fire. But, this message will have to come from you, the voters. By the way, there are seats coming up for election at all three member agencies. Let’s see some fresh faces for 2015.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 6

      • kayaknut says:

        I did and was told I am the only person to call about not receiving their ballot. Was then told a replacement one would be send but still nothing.. If it doesn’t arrive in a few more days I will call again I guess. This is one reason why for this election to be valid a certain percentage of all possible ballots need to be received and validated, by an outside agency not the FCFA.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

        • Julie says:

          My AG friend who is missing a ballot spoke directly to the Chief. No response since initial contact just days after the error was noticed.
          I am certain that kayaknut is not the same as my friend in AG. There are other accounts as well.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 6

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