Fire tax fearmongering peppers Oceano election information

February 10, 2020

Julie Tacker

OPINION by JULIE TACKER

Oceano Community Services District has embarked upon the process to implement a $180 annual flat-rate special fire tax on its property owners. All registered voters will have a say, the measure will need two-thirds voter approval to pass. Absentee ballots are out now and the polls will be open all day on March 3.

Recently, just hours after a “staffing shortage” or “brown out” at the Oceano Fire Station, the district held a two-hour special meeting about the special tax. The Five Cities Fire Authority (FCFA) Chief and the district’s General Manager gave presentations, along with some very nice fire personnel demonstrating hands on CPR.

The chief gave the district’s history as a partner in the FCFA and the general manager explained how, without passing the tax, the district may suffer.

Staffing shortages equate to poor management, that timely “brown out” smells of electioneering and fear mongering. Question, since the station was closed and no one worked their 50 hours, shouldn’t the district realize a credit from the FCFA because it received no service for those hours.

On Feb. 4, Oceano Director Shirley Gibson made an appearance on the Dave Congalton (radio) Show where she reiterated the pending ‘doom and gloom’ should the tax fail. Directors Karen White and Linda Austin both telephoned in pressing the point that the district will “lose their assets” and the Oceano station will close if the tax isn’t passed.

These directors would have you believe, should the fire tax fail, emergency services would come from Nipomo and emergency services would be substandard if performed by any other emergency personnel than the FCFA staff.

Honestly, when someone is need of emergency service, they don’t care where the personnel come from; they only care that they will receive qualified service. As an automatic aide provider, Cal Fire already performs exceptional service in Oceano when called upon.

Furthermore, based on the County’s Fire Strategic Plan service level analysis, if Oceano divested its fire power, “County Fire will need to staff the Oceano fire station since there is not a reasonably proximal alternative.”

According to the Nov. 2018 Special Districts Fire Protection Study performed by retired Cal Fire chief Dan Turner and retired fire chief Mike McMurry, should the county take the power of emergency services through the divestiture/LAFCO process, County Fire would perform the services for Oceano and would place their personnel and equipment in the district’s Front Street Station.

Rhetoric over response times being 12 to 15 minutes away are just that, rhetoric.

Furthermore, according to the same study, “automatic aid is provided to FCFA by the two City of Pismo Beach fire stations on Bello Street and Shell Beach Road.” These stations are just 7 to 8 minutes away, again, debunking the fear mongering claims of long response times.

Oceano provides property tax-supported services (fire, parks, and lighting) and enterprise services (water, wastewater, garbage and recycling). The district suggests, if the tax fails, the county will “take” their assets (buildings and services) and will leave them with a significant budget shortfall and having to rent an office/board room.

The district is committed until June 2021 to remain in the FCFA, if the tax fails, the district will begin negotiations with the county regarding what assets and revenue the district can offer to help fund the service. These are negotiations, not hostile takeover.

The district offices and board room are fire assets; fire personnel used to bunk in the meeting room, before the modular home was added to the property for housing. Perhaps the administration of the district should have been renting its space from its fire fund all along?

Neither the Oceano district nor the county can use enterprise funds on services that they aren’t intended for, like water funds for fire service. But, the Oceano district will tell you the garbage franchise is at risk and trash will go uncollected if the tax fails. More scare tactics.

Trash, of course, is a health and safety matter and will be collected by the private company paid by residence to pick it up.

The staffing at the Oceano Fire Station currently is one career firefighter and one reserve firefighter. In Sept. 2017, the FCFA board adopted a five-year strategic plan that has a staffing plan for a complete phase-out of volunteer/paid call and reserve firefighters. All firefighter positions are planned to be full-time career positions and daily staffing at the station will be minimum of three on duty.

The FCFA strategic plan implementation is simply too rich for Oceano’s blood and will result in a significant cost increases. The Oceano district, as part of the FCFA, has not compromised on something less and is asking you to tax yourself based on this level of service.

Another nuance of concern is choice of a flat tax; there are vegetable packing plants in Oceano that present a special hazard of use of ammonia as a coolant for fresh vegetables.

The Union Pacific railroad runs through Oceano, both these industrial land uses present specialized training and equipment needs. Yet, all parcels — residential, business, industrial and vacant will pay the same $180 annually, regardless of their land use type, parcel size or structure square footage. The Oceano district could have been more thoughtful in how the tax would be applied.

Lastly, the Oceano district is touting ‘cost per capita’, comparing their current cost for service with the cities of Pismo Beach, Atascadero, San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay and Paso Robles. They do not define what level of service each of the cities has to fairly compare ‘apples and apples.’ Again, electioneering, misleading information.

Oceano voters need to be fully informed before they cast their votes. Do your own research of the facts and don’t fall for scare tactics. It’s your money and your choice.

Julie Tacker, a lifetime resident of Los Osos, served for 14 years on the Los Osos Community Services District Emergency Services Committee.


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20miles

I buy that a closure may not be imminent without the tax but the writer makes no consideration for service levels when these other service providers are busy. These areas have heavy tourism which tasks their cities and service areas during high tourism season. They can’t be expected to provide additional, primary protection for another area when their resources are already stretched thin. I am conservative when it comes to government spending but, why risk a disaster for $15 per month per house?


20miles

Additionally, what will the impact of fire insurance rates with the closest stations being further away? Insurance companies include the distance to the fire station when underwriting and establishing premiums.


CoastalLocal

Another great point – fire insurance rates will likely increase leaving residents paying the gap from the County and higher rates.


CoastalLocal

“Honestly, when someone is need of emergency service, they don’t care where the personnel come from; they only care that they will receive qualified service. As an automatic aide provider, Cal Fire already performs exceptional service in Oceano when called upon.


Furthermore, based on the County’s Fire Strategic Plan service level analysis, if Oceano divested its fire power, “County Fire will need to staff the Oceano fire station since there is not a reasonably proximal alternative.”


According to the Nov. 2018 Special Districts Fire Protection Study performed by retired Cal Fire chief Dan Turner and retired fire chief Mike McMurry, should the county take the power of emergency services through the divestiture/LAFCO process, County Fire would perform the services for Oceano and would place their personnel and equipment in the district’s Front Street Station.


Rhetoric over response times being 12 to 15 minutes away are just that, rhetoric.


Furthermore, according to the same study, “automatic aid is provided to FCFA by the two City of Pismo Beach fire stations on Bello Street and Shell Beach Road.” These stations are just 7 to 8 minutes away, again, debunking the fear mongering claims of long response times.”


I disagree. And honestly Ms. Tacker, you are not the voice of Oceano residents who will be served or under served by any potential change in services. People live here, work here, our children go to school here. As a parent, I very much want emergency services to show up to my child’s school in the event of an emergency. People do care. Minutes matter. They care about rapid response and help, not an outsider muddling the waters just to see their name in print.


Study aside, locals logistically know that 7-8 minutes from Pismo to Oceano is not the response time EVERY time and there are variables to that response time, such as where the engine is at the time a call comes in, where it is going, road conditions, seasonal constraints and other. EMS rocks and the men and women who spend their time helping others do their absolute best. Regardless of their dedication to doing their best, their safety and the safety of the general public while en route, has to always be included in those equations.


I do agree with you, however, that residents do need to be informed.


Mutual Aid Agreements – sure…they exist. However, something to remember is that Grover Beach and Arroyo Grande each have only one station serving the population and if those engines/crews are on another call, they won’t be able to respond or respond timely. Minutes matter!


Trash/Dumping in Oceano – the franchise income is important to help keep Oceano clean and sanitary. Being a disadvantaged community there are many who cannot afford the costs of having debris (that they likely didn’t generate) picked up pn a repeated basis. Debris ends up strewn around by the homeless and seems to multiply in the alley ways (many of which are fire lanes). The franchise fees helps assist with community clean ups, bulky item removal and assisting residents whom simply cannot afford to be plagued by others taking advantage.


I understand the concerns over the tax formula and encourage you to stick to that debate and not try to sell people, who will be the most affected by your fearmongering tactics, on the “hope” that SLO County/CAL Fire will save the day with better services for less money. The County has already indicated that they will not cover any gaps in funding for fire services so those fees will be covered by the residents one way or another. If you can provide proof that the County will guarantee services with equal response times and cost, please d”o share the information; I will gladly look to learn from it.


20miles

In addition, these other providers will also pass their increased expense onto Oceano. They won’t absorb the cost. Much like cities that contract for 911 service, fire service, sheriff’s service all in lieu of their own departments.


Julie

CoastalLocal,

I appreciate your passion and hope you dig in to the details suggested in my opinion piece.


I don’t think I deserve to be called an “outsider” anymore, I have been engaged in Oceano and other south county issues as an observer for over 11 years. I have attended more meetings in your communities than any one person in the whole south county over these many years. I am not saying I know more than you, I’m saying you need to be a watchdog too.


Furthermore, I have experience with this very subject as I was aboard member here in Los Osos when we contracted with Cal Fire and must say it was the best decision our community ever made. We had to pass a tax and we did by a huge margin because we believed in what they brought to the table. Additionally, we have the highest level of service over all other Cal Fire’s unincorporated agencies. We pay just $2.3M a year to serve all of Los Osos, 14,500 people and the Montana de Oro SRA to the west and the farmland to the east, known as Zone 9i. Our contract reads, “Arrive at scene within five (5) minutes 90% of the time. Time starts upon dispatch and ends at arrival at incidents within the District boundary”. Los Osos is 3x as large as Oceano’s boundaries.


Through Cal Fire’s management they have been able to keep a robust reserve firefighter program in place for almost 16 years. We have 25 positions and consistently keep +/-20 of them on staff.


Bottom line on Cal Fire in Los Osos is we get a good value for our money.


The point of my opinion piece was to:

#1. Get people talking.

#2. Explain that divestiture is a negotiation process, not a “take over”.

#3. The voters need to do their own research and no buy the rhetoric.


Last point, both Paavo and Will had their facts wrong (even though both were intimately involved when they were at the county) said that the County “took” Los Osos’ garbage franchise, that’s completely false. We $old it to them. Facts matter.


CoastalLocal

Ms. Tacker,


It’s always good to look at what other cities and unincorporated areas have done in the past…it’s definitely smart research. However, it is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all answer. Something that may have worked for one community may not work for the next one.


What some people are calling “Plan B” here in Oceano (which is if Measure A-20 fails / relying on the hope that SLO County and CAL Fire will come to the rescue for no additional costs), is an unknown risk and one that could be grave. Literally. The uncertainty of knowing if the franchise income will be taken or sold; where things will land with street lighting and other services. I’d like to see more definite answers before assuming that risk. Again, using Los Osos as a model is good to look at, but it is not a guaranteed model for all areas.


My question is why do you feel the need to be the “watchdog” for Oceano and the other areas you continually interject yourself/your opinion into? You’ve taken it upon yourself to give a voice to people who don’t want or need you to represent them – your articles are continually riddled with the conjecture that people who live here aren’t smart enough to dig into the details and will only buy the rhetoric that you feel is wrong. That’s offensive. I applaud your dedication to civic duty, but I do question it. I think you take pleasure in creating chaos in communities where you do not live and it ends up costing time and money…in an area that you do not reside in, thus it doesn’t affect you.


I believe you feel you have good intentions and that this is your calling. Perhaps it is, but I feel otherwise. Facts do matter and are always welcome.


SloBus

I’d like to point out that my comments were screened and not ultimately allowed to post. My point was in Los Osos I pay $91 for a special fire tax for fire service. The CSD is expected to pay 3.6 million for fire service in the 19/20 budget.

https://www.losososcsd.org/files/85d9356f9/FY+19-20+Budget.pdf (Page 26 of 66). This includes CalFire, reserve firefighters, and all associated expenses. Oceano currently pay just shy of 1.2 million and is asking for a modest increase. Perhaps this article should be about how the FCFA is being stewards of the tax payers money by providing an effective service for a fraction of the cost that Los Osos is paying. I fully recognize that the 2 communities are very different, which is why I further don’t understand why the FCFA and Oceano are consistently ‘advised’ by outsiders to not pass supplemental taxes for fire services. This should be an easy decision to keep pace with the current service demand and to support a professional fire department for the good of the community.


Jorge Estrada

Maybe we should remember that we already PAY for fire insurance and the 911 actuated ambulance companies have EMT’s. Too often the first responder is a huge fire truck for a heart attack victim, I believe we need to have robust ambulance companies.


Mitch C

I fully agree. If there is a fire (of which there are few) we need to send a fire truck. If there is a medical emergency we need to send a capably staffed ambulance. Sending a fire engine to accompany an ambulance only happens so the fire department can maintain a high statistic count. Since the fire engine accompanies all ambulance they count this as a “call”. If fire departments reported only those call in which their services were actually needed and used, their monthly stats would show a different story.


20miles

The fire engines are also capable of rescue that ambulances are not. That may mean something as minor as excessive steps etc, that Paramedics may not be able to handle with a large/disabled person.


CoastalLocal

First responders provide vital BLS (basic life support) while waiting for the private ambulance company to get to you. Would you like to wait longer for CPR or AED assistance and risk loss of life?


Mitch C

You are correct as the system is currently established. More, better staged ambulances would be cheaper and more efficient than sending a second vehicle (a fire engine) to watch the ambulance personnel work.


jhagstro

Some additional points not addressed. First is cost – fire service by the county thru Cal Fire will not be free. The cost for this additional service provision will be paid for out of county tax money – your tax money – so one way or another, you will be paying for it. Second, you lose the local control that you currently have thru the election of your OCSD board members. Third – local Jobs – Cal Fire, through its contract with the county, staffs its stations with personnel rotated from throughout the entire state. Regarding the staffing level, the recommended level of staffing is contained in NFPA 1710 Standard on Fire Department Deployment and Operations – “Fire companies whose primary functions are to pump and deliver water and perform basic fire fighting at fires, including search and rescue, shall be staffed with a minimum of four on-duty personnel .” The 3-man staffing suggested by the FCFA still falls short of this standard but is a definite improvement over the current level. Fourth – there are no guarantees . . . no promises that the current station will house Cal Fire personnel and equipment. Is $12 a month too high a cost to pay to retain a system that works, retains local control and provides jobs?


Kalifornia_Bud

VOTE NO on Measure A-20. No New Taxes.


We (Oceano) need some new Leadership, obviously.


CoastalLocal

Hopefully, if you’re an Oceano resident, you will run for one of the three open Director seats. Info should be out from the County some time after the primary election and the filing period usually opens up in July. Solutions for the best interest of all in Oceano, not just the personal agenda’s, are welcome.