Five Cities Fire Authority needs financial counseling
October 3, 2014
OPINION By JULIE TACKER
“Five Cities Fire Authority struggles to adjust after layoffs” (Tribune, October 2) suggests that ‘Plan B’ for the agency is to apply for another grant to return its level of service to that which it enjoyed for that past two years as the beneficiary of a $1.2 million FEMA “SAFER” grant. These one-time monies were federally and are intended to put firefighters back to work after the recent recession resulted in many layoffs around the country. The program is not currently funded and FCFA would have to start from scratch in the application process if they were eligible and win such a grant it is not sustainable funding.
The FCFA’s 2012 grant application depicted a funding scenario that gave the appearance the three stations were severely underfunded, by approximately $445,000, to provide basic fire service. In June of that year, FCFA 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 and it sunset in mid-September this year.
Ironically, the City of Arroyo Grande has been enjoying approximately $400,000 per year savings by being part of the FCFA, as opposed to having an independent fire department. Yet, Grover Beach and the Oceano CSD have realized significant cost increases to their fire budgets and are now paying more on average than they did when they stood alone.
Four years into the agreement it’s apparent the agreement is inequitable and needs renegotiation.
The loss of the six firefighters means FCFA has returned to the level of staffing it had when formed in 2010. At that time there was no assurance grants would offset the fundamental flaws of its formation; deferred budgeting for equipment and apparatus replacement to a future funding mechanism sourced by the ratepayers.
The assessment failed by a whopping 66 percent. The $1 million-plus annual, in perpetuity, assessment was intended for salaries and benefits to retain those three positions (six firefighters) acquired through the grant funding. The funding for important capital items (i.e. equipment and apparatus) would have decreased each year as costs associated with the three positions rose. The assessment did not provide for current staff to enjoy long overdue cost of living raises.
“Plan B” as FCFA defines it should be a last resort. Grants have strings attached and are not a sustainable source of funding. Additionally, the FEMA grant is federal money; it is not wise to expect the nation’s taxpayers to fund FCFA services.
Chief Heath’s candor in the article is appreciated, he truthfully explains that on occasion, 3.6 percent of the time, a firefighter may need to ride along with a patient in the ambulance and that the “Two in Two out rule goes out the window” should a rescue be necessary. FCFA spent approximately $120,000 pursuing the assessment, in part, using these examples to frighten voters into thinking the FCFA would be unable to respond to emergencies.
FCFA and Cal Fire have a mutual aide contract that makes for fine emergency services throughout the FCFA’s boundaries. Yet, the FCFA is silent as to pursuing a viable ‘Plan B’ and request a competitive contract bid from Cal Fire to perform their duties. Not only could Cal Fire save the ratepayers money, Cal Fire would absorb the FCFA staff into its statewide agency, offering quality continuing education and training that FCFA never could afford these dedicated individuals. Cal Fire provides opportunities for advancement and the ability to move almost anywhere in the state. And, there is no cost to FCFA to obtain a quote.
FCFA owes the ratepayers of Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano the best service at the lowest price. If that comes by contracting with Cal Fire, then so be it. But, if the decision makers don’t request the information they will not know what “Plan B’s” are available.
Election season is upon us, elevate the debate, ask the candidates; get a Cal Fire quote.