Five Cities Fire Authority never considered Cal Fire comparison
March 5, 2014
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.