Setting the record straight on AG fire issues

November 7, 2016
Mayor Jim Hill

Mayor Jim Hill


Many voters in the City of Arroyo Grande have received a slick mailer from Richard Waller that says, “Our fire department still has no funding to replace 20 year old trucks and outdated equipment. Mayor Hill voted against the Five Cities Fire Authority budget leaving the fire department underfunded.”

The flyer demonstrates Mr. Waller’s ignorance of issues and misrepresentation of facts.

The reality of fire authority budget woes starts with the board who approves and oversees their budget. The fire authority board is currently comprised of Barbara Harmon, Mayor John Shoals, and OCSD Director Karen White.

Mayor Hill did not vote against the fire authority budget as Mr. Waller states. Mayor Hill does not sit on the fire authority board as the Arroyo Grande representative, Barbara Harmon does. Only members of the fire authority board can vote on the fire authority budget.

In order to understand the situation fully, you need to know that the City of Arroyo Grande operates on a two-year budget cycle but the Five Cities Fire Authority operates on an annual cycle.This is significant because:

1) Arroyo Grande shoulders the majority of the costs associated with the fire authority.

2) The fire authority came to the city requesting budget adjustments totaling over $150,000 in the middle of the city’s two year cycle.

LeAnn Akins

LeAnn Akins

3) The city budget was already approved and the money had been committed.

Mayor Hill alone voted against the adjustments to the city budget, partly because it effectively put the fire authority at the front of the line for all city funding. All other departments went through the negotiation process at the beginning of the two year budget—but the fire authority came in at the end of the first year of that two year city budget cycle asking for a lot more money that the city does not have.

That budget hit means the city must forgo two staff members, which adversely impacts all other city departments.

Much of the budget adjustments the fire authority were requesting was for new self-contained breathing apparatus – equipment the authority knew far in advance needed replacement. The FCFA budget originally factored in money from a grant they had applied for but ultimately did not receive.

Had the fire authority board structured a budget that only counted money they actually had, had they presented it at the start of the two year process, and had they timely forecasted predictable equipment needs there would have been no need for wrenching budget adjustments.

With regards to Mr. Waller’s statement about the fire authority being underfunded, money has not been set aside for equipment and apparatus replacement by the fire authority board. The fire authority board is responsible for setting their budget and setting aside funds to replace equipment.

With regard to “underfunding and 20 year old trucks and outdated equipment,” the fire authority is leasing a brand new fire engine, which is about to be delivered.

Two years ago, the citizens of all fire authority member agencies voted down a special fire assessment.  The fire authority board needs to respect the residents’ ability to fund the authority.

The answer is not for fire authority to drop major expenditures on the city in the middle of a budget cycle, it is for them to align their budget process with the city, properly forecast their scheduled equipment needs and then set aside funds for that purpose – not to count grants they have not received.

We need to re-elect Mayor Hill and help him by electing fiscally responsible candidates to the Arroyo Grande Council. On Nov. 8 it is important to vote for LeAnn Akins and John Mack who will join the mayor in keeping residents’ interests at the forefront.

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The alleged purpose of the FCFA’s formation was to achieve cost efficiencies in operation by combining the independent Fire Departments into a single unit. Even though consolidation brought a single management, the fact is established that no real cost savings ever occurred.

No meaningful comparisons were made at that time, or at any time hence, considering CAL Fire as an alternative that had established “levels of service” resources and assets in place.

The FCFA is a “shadow department” of Arroyo Grande (AG). AG, does all the administration for the FCFA. The FCFA’s Treasurer is the Administrative Director of AG who answers to the City Manager of AG. AG’s Board member is the only member that has been on the Board since its inception in 2010.

Even though the JPA provides that a consensus must exist on matters by the three member FCFA Board, AG is the heaviest financial contributor and what it says becomes the reality of practice and policy..

Why is it with the government that when they have “budget adjustments” they don’t call it what it really is, a budget screw up. Again Chief Steve Lieberman is trying to cover his bad management, but then again that’s what we get from a Ferrara holdover. Another reason Arroyo Grande city staff needs a cleaning. Lieberman as with many government types is trying to budget with what he wants instead of what he has and when the mystery money doesn’t magically appear (i.e. he wasn’t able to scare the voters into giving him more) he requests a “budget adjustment”. It would be so refreshing to see a government budget with what they actually have.