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.

 

 


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SLOBIRD

This is how movements get started. Next, a road assessment, an ambulance assessment, tree assessment, etc. And, they automatically increase every year. Government lives, breathes and loves new “found” money and any amount for anything is fair game. Look at what Paso did last night. If someone is hurt or killed and you want to put up a memorial will now cost $285.00. No more flowers and a candle. The City said because it was a distraction for make shift memorials to exist. I guess government paid for memorials are less distractive. Government logic at work!


Otis

Julie is a remarkable activists. She is diligent, astute, politically savvy, and has an insight on the net issues in all of her political vistas. Her analysis of the Five Cities Fire Authority (FCF) tax increase pulls backs the curtains on a dark scene where good people have stumbled in trying to do the right thing.


That stumble places at the property owner’s door a tax baggage that was impulsively conceived, illogically administered in it inequitable implementation, and only solves approximately 25% of the FCFA budget.


That boat has sailed, with ballots sent out to property owners, but it will be a sad event if the matter passes. For many reasons! But the most important one is it proposes band-aid financing for a critical resource — our firemen — while alternatives such as CAL Fire have been ignored.


falconbh

I have to agree that Ms. Julie Tacker has really opened up the backroom deals of this costly tax and merger.


She has displayed the courage and skills of a ” Servant Leader”. This uncommon leader is working for the common good of all residents in Oceano, Arroyo Grande, and Grover Beach.


It will be interesting to see where her leadership and analytical skills take her in the future

as she continues to grow, develop, and makes a positive impact in San Luis Obispo County.


Local1

More Facts:

Does the fixed cost of a Fire Station change if you go on more or less calls or have a bigger population per station??

Answer is NO.

FCFA is basing budget numbers (Authority Cities,District) on number of calls and population. This does not work when there is a “Fixed” cost associated for every employee on duty every day. In essence Oceano Pays 700K roughly and Grover pays 1.2 million roughly for the same 3 people on duty each day. So in reality “business” world would recognize this as Arroyo and Grover are paying the difference for Oceano to have the same staffing. The original 300K savings was False whe it was formed as there was no plan for Equipment or Engine replacement.

If you take the original 300K savings(from merger which did not exist) and have Oceano pay the “Actual Personnel Costs” for the extra people like Grover of 500K roughly then you have the 800K needed without a Assessement!!

Why does Oceano pay almost half for the same 3 person staffing as Grover??? Thats the QUESTION. Remember the employees cost a certain amount (salary,benefits)weather they go on 100 or 2 calls and serve 3000 people or 10000 people.

Stations are a fixed cost ( cost for 1,2,3,4 people)not based on calls and population but rather a real world Dollar amount…


falconbh

What I find so interesting is that before this merger Arroyo Grande had a well respected fire department with a lot of community support and pride.


Services were paid from current local tax revenues.


After this cost saving merger, we find that it really saved no money, we are all faced with another new tax increase proposal, and we have lost our confidence in the department and local government.


falconbh

Show Me The Merger Savings


Budget:


2010- 11 $ 3,437.825


2011-12 $ 3,654.319


2012-13 $ 3,552,998


2013-14 $ 3,506,079


+ One Million Dollar Tax Increas ???


Mitch C

This is an excellent analysis and should be strongly considered before any of the effected citizens cast their vote.


Julie

Thank you very much Mitch.


What I’m hoping people realize is that they do have the opportunity to change their vote all the way up until that April 4, 2PM public hearing in the Grover Beach City Council Chambers.


In the meantime they need to be talking to their neighbors and letting them know that Cal Fire was always an option and until all options are exhausted no tax should be levied.


Additionally, while it is extremely rare, Board’s have chosen NOT to accept the assessment if/when it passes. This is a viable option for the FCFA Board. Between now that April 4 each member agency should be having hearings about their own ballots (how to vote the public properties — that the ratepayers pay for too) and should discuss taking a new position on the assessment. My recommendation would be to obtain a Cal Fire proposal before any assessment is levied.


If the tri-communities knew how much we in Los Osos have appreciated our relationship with Cal Fire and why Pismo didn’t fold into FCFA and Nipomo also enjoys their service, there would be no hesitation.


I can’t find one reason NOT to ask Cal Fire for a quote and no one has offered up one that has any validity.


Pelican1

But….but…if they go to Cal Fire, they’ll blow holes in the ever growing, over resourced, less efficient, ALWAYS underfunded bureaucracy

I can’t believe we actually agree on something.


SLOBIRD

This goes back to the original elephant in the room. WHEN any government agency receives funds for hiring anyone, like the firefighters, the expectation is that they should continue forever. Bad enough that a agency has to beg, compete and lie for it, like bridges and roads to nowhere, etc. These grants should be to fix an existing problem, buy and upgrade needed equipment that maybe the agency could not afford on its own, etc. NEVER should grants be given to hire anyone and better yet, the agency should never accept the grant unless you know what you are doing and being honest about it. This has nothing to do with the firefighters, or could have been police officers, tree trimmers, public works, etc.


falconbh

Null and Void


This election should be delared ” Null and Void” by the citizens, board, and our elected officals in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, and Oceano.


The more we learn, the more this New Extra Tax is exposed for what it is; a backroom deal devised to fleece local taxpayers, and bailout the department and Unions.


This so called merger has clearly not saved taxpayers money. The budget has remained stable since the merger ! It answers the big question on why they have never answered this question for the public. Sure ” the spin doctors” will throw out some figures and try to confuse the voters or when all else fails we will hear the silence of public corruption.


One Million Dollars is one big number, for one [1] department ! The only one winning in this election [sic] is the Outside Consultants who have been pulling the strings since day one and will do anything to win, so they can collect their Taxpayers Funded Bonus and leave town.. So much for local control and the democratic process.


I strongly feel the department and the cities have crossed the line and violated state election laws by using taxpayers funds to support this new tax. One look at the information brochure mailed to voters, and other items to promote this new extra tax provides the facts to support this statement. Ethics ? Professional ? Fairness ?


We all need to be concerned with the actions of the board and department in the way this backroom stealth undemocratic process has been run by these taxpayers funded outside consultants.

Why are they afraid to have Public Community Hearings on this New Tax ? Why did they deny a simple request from a citizen of Arroyo Grande to have a statement against this New Tax included in the mailer to voters ? Have they intentionally Violated the Brown Act ? Why ?


Is this the way future Tax Increases will come to the residents of Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, and Oceano? What happened to Democracy in Our Country ?


This Is A Call To Action For All Citizens ! Vote NO


Elected Officals This Election Should Be Declared ” Null and Void”


slojo

Just curious Julie, have you ever had to personally use the services of FCFA or Cal Fire?


Julie

Relevance? Not sure there is any slojo.

The answer to your question is “yes” my family has called on Cal Fire and “no” my family has not had to call on FCFA. I, personally, knock on wood, have never needed emergency attention.

Many of my South County friends have appreciated the services of FCFA; no one is disputing the fine firefighters of FCFA, simply asking for accountability to the ratepayer and to provide a cost comparison between the two agencies.


slojo

Well just remember, if you personally are ever in need of emergency personnel and 2 volunteers with basic training eventually show up at your house with old equipment and all they can do is hold your hand until the ambulance arrives from as far as 15 miles away, it’s on you. Good luck.


kayaknut

Really??


Julie

Hey there all, I want to point out a typo that effects the piece (there are other minor ones I’m sure you’ll forgive me and the editor at CCN for). Where it says, “In 2001, its budget was $3.4 million down from the year before by $150,000, but has only gone up each year since.” It should read 2010.


Brother Bear

slojo, you ask fellow readers to be open minded to the duties of a firefighter yet you bash the ambulance service and other fire departments with uneducated comments. Fortunately, I know your cockiness and ignorance is not representative of your department as I have had many positive experiences with them. So before you start categorizing other departments as 2 volunteers with old equipment, maybe you yourself should do a ride along to learn more about those departments before making ignorant comments since you’ve asked other readers to do the same.


slojo

brotherbear….I am not a firefighter, in the fire service or in the medical field for that matter however, I am educated on how how it works. Bottom line is going with CalFire would simply be a step backwards. I’m not going to bash CalFire, I know people who work for CalFire and they are great people. They offer a very basic, minimal service when it comes to EMS. If you are ok with that and waiting for the ambulance (there are only so many ambulances on duty in our county per day and yes, sometimes they are ALL busy) then CalFire is for you. Just make sure you understand what you are asking for and what you will be getting when you say you want CalFire.


Bugcatcher

Slojo,


I have patiently sat back and read your comments about

CAL FIRE. You are not educated and or informed about

the services they provide under contractual agreement to a particular local government entity, which CAL FIRE has multiple agreements statewide. If a requesting agency

wants and will pay for Paramedic service (ALS) versus

Basic Life Support (BLS), usually staffed by Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT’s) that is what is provided or

staffing levels for fire apparatus, including engines, laddertrucks, haz mat teams, technical rescue, etc. If you would like to contact Riverside County, I believe they have the

largest city (population 135,000) contract in Moreno

Valley, over 25 years of cityhood and relationship with

CAL FIRE. Over the years CAL FIRE has saved the city millions of dollars versus a stand alone Fire Dept.

Besides the county coverage, they contract with multiple cities, some with the highest per capita wealth /

income in the country. These dept.’s have a complete

fire service model, with the same level of service that

large urban fire dept.’s provide.You can go online and

locate “Riverside County Fire Dept.” to see what they

offer in cooperation with CAL FIRE. Also, look up CAL

FIRE and you will get a better understanding of the depth of this fine organization and its role as a statewide ALL

RISK emergency response agency.


wssailor

CAL FIRE has paramedics..just like the ambulance…FCFA does not. You are going to wait for a paramedic in the five cities area the way things are now. FCFA could contract with CAL FIRE and use the money they save to actually increase their level of service and provide paramedic services. Right now all FCFA provides is an EMT-B (B=BASIC) level of service.


wssailor

Wow..are you kidding. Talk about misinformation. FYI…CAL FIRE in Los Osos with their paramedic service has the highest save rate in SLO County. Also..FYI…ambulance service is completely separate from fire service in SLO County. One has nothing to do with the other. There are two ambulance services in SLO County. Cambria Ambulance and the private company San Luis Ambulance which serves the rest of the county. You don’t know what you’re talking about.


madmaxx

I don’t know who you are ‘slojo’ , but you obviously believe you are some sort of EXPERT in the fire service by reading all the comments from you. In reality you are probably a union represented firefighter spouting the old tired lines that unions do.


As I have stated previously in other comments concerning this issue – the MAJORITY of fire departments throughout the United States are volunteer fire departments. If you really knew what you were talking about, you would also know that volunteer firefighters must meet the same standards and qualifications as full time paid firefighters. Most volunteer fire departments are extremely professional and in many instances better trained and equipped than their full time paid fire department counterparts. That’s not to say there are not poorly trained and equipped volunteer departments, but the same also exists for full time paid departments. In most instances the quality of the department is dependent on the leadership. Of course, you don’t want to deal in facts, you just want to talk the same ole union trash talk as always – if you don’t give us what we want, the sky will fall, the community is doomed, all will be lost, everyone is going to die.


The facts show that this FCFA operation has not saved any money – it acquired money via a grant and now wants to continue with that staffing as if the increased staffing is the norm – it is not. This is a poorly written attempt by FCFA to increase their budget and satffing via a ‘tax’ ( assessment ) that has no sunset clause and can and will be increased every year. I look at the fire department operation here and without even looking hard see the waste and poor use of tax payers dollars. My belief is a proper and thorough examination of the facts/budget and the communities would be better served with CalFire. I know you don’t like that, but you base your belief of CalFire on what the organization was 20 plus years ago – a predominantly wildland firefighting organization. Those days have come and gone, they are a full operation organization in todays world.


This assessment should be voted “NO”


kettle

slojo say:Just curious Julie, have you ever…….


Your desire to make it personal is a logical fallacy, “You made what could be called an appeal to purity as a way to dismiss relevant criticisms or flaws of your argument.

This kind of post-rationalization is a way of avoiding valid criticisms of one’s argument.”


slojo

Public safety is personal to me, it affects me personally….like if I ever need to call 911. I would be fine paying an extra $100 bucks a year to keep FCFA instead of going with CalFire. That’s my personal opinion.


madmaxx

It’s great to have opinions, but most people base their opinion on facts – you surely don’t seem to care about facts from your comments. You talk a lot of trash about things you do not have adequate knowledge of. Do your homework before you talk about things you have limited knowledge of. CalFire is by far a much better operation than FCFA is – it has been providing fire service/EMS coverage for large communities throughout the state for many many years.


I read your comment that you are not a firefighter or in the EMS field – but you are educated in how it works. Please tell us all where you received this education if you are not in the fire service or EMS field.


I base my comments/opinions on 35 years firefighting experience and education in the fire safety/protection field. As a retired fire chief of a fire department that dwarfs the FCFA operation, I strongly believe this tax/assessment is wrong and should be voted down.