Five Cities Fire Authority needs financial counseling

October 3, 2014
Julie Tacker

Julie Tacker

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.


Loading...
LameCommenter

Thank you for a good laugh, Tacker.


Reading financial remarks from someone (you) who destroyed a working, funded, vetted, GOING wastewater project and cost nearly EACH Los Osos resident $ 24,900 for the replacement project (with the same sewer, and the same plant albeit a few clicks east of the one you interrupted the building of) is a JOKE. A pathetic joke.


You and Cesena, Schicker etc. cost nearly ALL Osos owners twenty five large. The money is gone, burned, and you lied to seniors to BARELY win your tragic recall disaster election.


That nutjob, costly, vain vote removes ANY legitimacy or privilege that you might have in making remarks about municipal financing. You demonstrated complete arrogance and lack of respect for the money of your fellow property owners. We are all paying for it daily, and for decades to come.


Pelican1

The hypocrisy she has exhibited here, is the outward acknowledgment of inward shame.


Perspicacious

Don’t give Cuesta any more money either!


falconbh

Sure are a lot of agencies that are Not Entitled to more taxpayers funds ! Certainly Cuesta is one, Online Education and fewer buildings is the now future. The Ogren csd, located in oceano , along with the South County Sanitation District are the best examples of waste and mismanagement. My favorite is the ” save our streets” Grover Beach New Street Tax Increase. Where have they been for the past 10 Years with our Taxes ?

They hired one high priced consultant to manipulate the voters. If you follow the money it leads back to One Professional Group who is attempting to use your Taxes to achieve more profit for themselves.


If you live in Grover Beach you are already looking at Higher Property Taxes, Higher Water Rates, then add New Road Tax, Cuesta College Tax Increase and then South County Sanitation District New Tax Increase.


The Question for each Voter becomes Can You Afford All These New Tax and Rate Increases ?

Please Vote in November.

This will become one of the Most Costly Elections in Local History.


SLO_Johnny

All of these funding problems in local government have a single cause. Under the declaration of financial emergency by the State of California, the state government has been withholding property tax revenues from cities and counties to artificially reduce the the state’s budget deficit to improve the state’s credit rating to get lower bond interest rates and to allow state politicians to spend more money to buy votes.


We have all of these new local taxes being raised because the state cannot withhold those taxes. They must be returned to the communities. So, write your State Representative and State Senators and demand that the state stop this practice and get its own budget in order.


falconbh

I encourage others to just review the FCFA Budget. When you see over 90% of the budget in Salaries, Early Pensions, and Lifetime Benefits, it makes a clear case for the unsustainable budget of this pubic agency and other Cities, the County, and Special Districts that are faced with the same fiscal problems.[ Stockton, San Jose, etc. ]


The problem is not enough funding. It is clearly how these funds have been allocated.

Option C; reduce Salaries and Benefits and FCFA will have more than enough funding.


We all have to come to realize that their are fiscal limitations on what each area can afford. If individuals are not satisfied with their salaries, they can certainly apply for positions in a district or city paying more.


Just look at the upcoming November Elections; New Sales Tax Increases, Special New Road Tax Increase, New Education Tax Increases, AG New Sales Tax Extension approved by City Council. Then take a look at your Property Tax Bill Increase, and ask yourself where is that money going ? Budgets are growing. As items cost more, Sales Taxes are increasing .Budgets Grow More !


Then you have the Special Districts using ” Automatic Rate Increases” without a democratic vote of the people, Increasing Rates for Water and Sanitation without any checks or balances to control excessive spending.


This November Is Going To Be One Costly Election .

How Many New Tax Increases and Automatic Rate Increases Can YOU Afford $$$

Please Vote


beachboy

FCFA is the lowest paid fire department in the county get your facts straight and no one in the department on the floor has had a raise in over 7 years


kayaknut

No raise in 7 years, I’d say welcome to the private sector….


beachboy

oh and I forgot to mention everybody took a pay cut to make the merger happen and havr taken other hits since they have started.meaning they’re making less now than they did before they merge. I’m a business owner and have worked my entire life in the private sector you cannot compare essential services to a business. fire departments and police departments are not a fee for service they’re not out there to make money


kayaknut

Again, welcome to the private sector


beachboy

and I forgot to mention everybody took a pay cut to make the merger happen and havr taken other hits since they have started.meaning they’re making less now than they did before they merge. I’m a business owner and have worked my entire life in the private sector you cannot compare essential services to a business. fire departments and police departments are not a fee for service they’re not out there to make money. they are here for the community to do the best possible job they can with the budget that is given to them by the communityensure you get what you pay for.


beachboy

and I forgot to mention everybody took a pay cut to make the merger happen and have taken other hits since they have started.meaning they’re making less now than they did before the merge. I’m a business owner and have worked my entire life in the private sector you cannot compare essential services to a business. fire departments and police departments are not a fee for service they’re not out there to make money. they are here for the community to do the best possible job they can with the budget that is given to them by the community. you get what you pay for.


JamesD

My first post was not meant to put down the job of the firefighters of FCFA. It’s their upper

management that screwed things up.


MaryMalone

Thanks for the enlightening article, Julie.


It seems unbelievable that the FireAuthority would set itself up without having dependable funding except which relies on grant-funding to adequately staff the firefighters, and with a business plan that is little more than “spend all the money we got now” and a back-up plan of “getting funding by passing a measure that has to be approved by voters.”


It seems the FireAuthority is woefully unable to handle the financial realities of running a fire service.


If for no other reason than that, then the FireAuthority should immediately start talks with CalFire for providing fire services, and then hand off the services to CalFire once the agreement has been made.


beachboy

it’s not that they’re spending all their money and now. It’s at the cities are under funding the authority. Let’s use the city of AG for instance over 50 of the general fund goes to the police department 14 goes there Parks and Rec Department and it’s about 10% to the fire department it’s very similar numbers in Grover Beach if anything the authority has made their dollar stretch further than most people could ever imagine. In my opinion its people like the former mayor of Grover Beach and the current mayor of a Arroyo Grande that under appreciate and undervalue the firefighters and obviously care more about palm trees and park benches than sufficient fire services. but please don’t take my word for it do your own research get the facts get the numbers and come up with your own conclusion don’t listen to me or anyone else who just writes a blog.


Julie

Ok, so here’s an irony.


Every member agency voted the people’s properties for the assessment (nearly 100 parcels are owned by the three communities). The ballots are public record until April of 2016 (longer if FCFA chooses). The City of Grover Beach’s ballots were not among the yes ballots. All council members said they supported the FCFA by voting the people’s property, but Arroyo Grande Mayor Pro Tem Guthrie and Oceano CSD Vice President Lucy both failed to vote their personal property for the assessment. Just seems two-faced to me.


Of course, there’s also Caren Ray’s missing yes vote here: http://calcoastnews.com/2014/09/supervisor-caren-ray-s-unwarranted-self-promotion/


I have done my research, spent many hours doing so. Offered suggestions and ideas to the FCFA Chief and continue to look for solutions to the budget shortfalls and shown how the JPA is formatted in Arroyo’s favor.


Four years into this it makes perfect sense to take another look and see if the agreement can be tweaked for the better of all.


Julie

Mary,

See the Trib’s interview with Joe Costello, he says it right there. “Find some full time funding for the fire authority”…they went into this thinking an Fire District (taxable) would be the way to go. Consultant #1 gave them the bad news that it wouldn’t fly. Chief Arnaz was fired (with a $60K parachute). So, that 1st consultant was let go and Consultant #2 was hired because he told them what they wanted to hear….convinced them the assessment district would pass…clearly he was wrong. Both got paid, lawyers got paid, $120K was spent and the FCFA staff gets by with what they have. They did get a 2% increase from the member agencies, but in doing so the Oceano fire fund was adopted this year $33K in deficit.


This is not sustainable funding.


JamesD

Help me with the math. The Tribune article stated,” previously the Arroyo Grande station was staffed on all shifts with three full time personnel and a reserve firefighter, ( 3+1=4) and the Grover Beach and Oceano station were staffed by two full time employees and a reserve.”

(2+1=3)

“With the cuts shifts have Been shuffled so each station has the minimum personnel to operate the engines. Fire engine crews typically have consisted of a fire captain, an engineer and a firefighter Heath said.”

So, two of the three stations before the cuts were not even staffed to meet the “two in, two

out rule” (2+2=4) If you only sent one engine from Grover Beach or Oceano station.

So, approximately 66 % of the time they left the station unable to meet the two in two out rule

for a fire. I bet they dispatched another engine to assist. What are they going to do now.

Maybe dispatch another engine to assist. Problem solved.


Mr. Holly

If you listen to the fire scanner you will hear that when a fire is reported numerous fire trucks are dispatched under the mutual aid agreement.


Julie

JamesD,

You are so right, two in two out is only accomplished if there are four people on every truck responding to every call. That is unrealistic and when someone’s safety is at risk, two in two out is “out the window.” These brave people risk their own lives for ours.

The way it works now, if two trucks roll to one scene, Cal Fire’s cooperative agreement provides “up and cover” for the areas left without coverage.


Mr. Holly

This might be the problem. They are asking for 6 firefighters. They want $1,000,000 to pay for them.

Well take $1,000,000 and divide it by 6 and that might be the reason none of this will ever work.


The answer $166,666 a year per fireman.


Julie

Let’s correct this number to be completely fair to FCFA. The assessment was to have been for $1M the first year, broken down in round numbers, $660K was for the SAFER firefighters and $440K was for equipment and apparatus. In my opinion, if FCFA had simply stuck with the staffing it had when formed and asked via assessment for the annual $400K they would have gotten that. But instead they were duped by consultants and attorneys who burned through approx. $120K (that could have really paid for something) in pursuit of an assessment that was doomed to fail while leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of voters.


beachboy

mostly correct and agreed with, but asking for a bid from cal fire you need to compare apples to apples. I’m not as familiar with Los Osos but I know in Pismo the contract only pays for personnel, two thirds of the personnel at one station and half of the personnel at the other. The city of Pismo is still on the hook for equipment replacement and vehicle replacement so if you look at the contract budget it’s only personnel not equipment or vehicles. That alone makes me think FCFA is doing quite a bit with not very much I’m sure all the employees would love a 30 percent increase in pay by going to cal fire but there is something to be said about local control and pride in your community I’m definitely not opposed to a bid and to see the cost differences but let’s look at the real numbers and what they’re paying for overall. I have a city of Pismo for those numbers and cannot get a straight answer from Cal Fire or the city. regardless if you support CalFire or you support the FCFA or both all the guys working on the floor coming into your home are good people doing the best job they can with what they have.


Julie

Beachboy,


I completely agree. All of these firefighters of people of integrity. I do not “support” one fire service over another, my experience in Los Osos is about real money savings.


You are completely correct the comparison would need to be apples and apples and not skewed by “per capita” numbers as was thrown about during the pursuit of the assessment. Per capita has nothing to do with level of service unless service provided is exactly the same.


Pismo Beach, for example, has the same population as Oceano but, it also has 2000 hotel rooms that are often full. It has two fire stations to man and runs a very successful life guard program, so comparing it to Oceano is totally irrelevant. Another thought about Pismo is that they are the wealthiest city in the county and contract with Cal Fire and when asked to join the FCFA, (there’s only 3 communities in the Five Cities Fire Authority) Pismo Beach declined.


I am certain FCFA is doing the best it can with what it has, I’m also certain that the staff hasn’t seen raises in many a moon. That is why I also suggest the contract between the three communities needs analysis, Arroyo Grange seems to be enjoying savings while the others are not.


I am also suggesting…FCFA get a quote for service and if FCFA is doing the best it can, if they are doing better than Cal Fire can, than the ratepayer is getting the most for their dollar already. But how do we know? Until we see that very detailed comparison, we won’t.


As for equipment etc., Cal Fire has many pieces and can supply replacements when FCFA pieces are in the shop (this has happened in Los Osos and we are so fortunate for that).


Additionally, local control is still had, the Cal Fire contract is with the Los Osos CSD and we have a citizen committee that vets the purchases and evaluates needs on a monthly basis. All expenses are approved by the Board.