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Five Cities Fire Authority's uncertain future

Five Cities Fire Authority
The Five Cities Fire Authority fights fires and responds to emergencies in three cities, but Arroyo Grande pays the most for the services.

Arroyo Grande city officials and community membersmet for over four hours this week to consider if Arroyo Grande should stay in the Five Cities Fire Authority (FCFA), which isn’t actually comprised of five cities, it’s three—including Oceano and Grover Beach. The meeting came after city staff recommended Arroyo Grande leave the fire department, essentially dissolving it. Now San Luis Obispo County officials may be stepping in to help save it.

At the Feb. 26 Arroyo Grande city council meeting, City Manager Jim Bergman outlined the key issue for the packed room: reserve firefighters are disappearing in California; people just can’t afford to volunteer anymore.

“I’ve heard many reasons expressed,” Bergman said. “From increasing requirements for firefighter training; time that people have; it’s expensive to live here; and it’s hard to be able to dedicate your time to your community when the wages are low and there [are] other opportunities out there.”

Instead, the FCFAis moving towards a model of full-time, staffed fire stations. And that’s expensive.

Under the current funding formula for the department, Arroyo Grande pays the biggest portion, at 47 percent. Grover Beach contributes 34 percent and Oceano Community Services District funds the remaining 19 percent. Arroyo Grande paid approximately $2.5 million for FCFA service in 2018.

Bergman said the three entities haven’t been able to agree on a new funding formula, and so it was Bergman’s recommendation in the staff report released Friday that Arroyo Grande leave the FCFA.

But Arroyo Grande mayor Carren Ray Russom said a key point buried in the report is: it’s less that Arroyo Grande wants to leave the authority and more that it is required in their agreement: if parties can’t cut a deal on a new funding formula by April 1, 2019, each entity is allowed to leave to create their own fire department, out of necessity to service fire needs of their own communities.

“That did not come across in the staff report because it’s so scary to say we’re pulling and going to a one station fire department, that’s not really the intent,” Ray Russom said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Ray Russom said the intent is to stay together. However, because Arroyo Grande is an incorporated city, and Oceano is a community services district—or a CSD—that’s where it gets complicated. While Arroyo Grande can fund fire service a variety of ways, like pulling funding from one department or even initiating layoffs, Oceano can only pay for it through property taxes. And 97 percent of Oceano’s property taxes already goes to fire. Oceano is faced with either asking voters to approve a hike in property taxes, or go back to depending on the county for fire services—the county is obligated to provide fire service to the CSD if it cannot. And that got the county’s attention.

"As it became apparent that this thing was going to fall apart, then [San Luis Obispo County Administrative Officer] Wade [Horton] stepped up and said, 'We want to see how we can hold this together,’" Ray Russom said.

When reached for comment, Horton said he wasn’t ready to go into specifics until the parties had all met. Horton said he, along with supervisors John Peschong and Bruce Gibson, should being meeting with the FCFA cities in in the next week to begin working to find a solution.

But it may not be easy.

“A complicating factor for the county is that they have six CSDs, so if they do it for one they have to do it for all six,” Ray Russom said.

County officials have already expressed the budget for the next fiscal year may be stretched thin.

So for now, the communities served by the Five Cities Fire Authority will have to wait for an answer. An update is expected at the next Arroyo Grande city council meeting on March 12.