Five Cities Fire Authority has six months to figure out funding, or disband

Mar 14, 2019

At the end of February, when Arroyo Grande city staff floated the idea of leaving the Five Cities Fire Authority (FCFA) in San Luis Obispo County, it threatened the future of fire services for the city, as well as Oceano and Grover Beach. This week, the Arroyo Grande city council decided the fire department shouldn’t disband yet. And now all three communities served by the FCFA—Arroyo Grande, Oceano and Grover Beach—have six months to come up with funding plan all agree on.

The FCFA wants to depend more on full-time firefighters than volunteers. What’s complicated is how the new model will get funded. On a Sunday in early March, representatives from the FCFA’s service area, fire and union representatives, residents, county supervisors and the county’s manager all got together to discuss solutions.

At Tuesday’s Arroyo Grande city council meeting, those who attended that Sunday meeting said it was a positive experience, but not all good news.

“It wasn’t necessarily what we wanted to hear,” Mayor Pro Tem Kristen Barneich said. “We weren’t going to be saved by the county, but at least we know know what we are facing.”

County officials told the group if the FCFA disbands, there’s no guarantee the county will be able to provide fire services to those communities. So for now, Arroyo Grande, Oceano and Grover Beach will take six months to figure out a funding formula. If they can come to an agreement, there will still be one more hurdle.

“The Oceano Community Services District [needs to] commit to a funding measure that would go before Oceano voters on March 3, 2020,” said Arroyo Grande City Manager Jim Bergman.

Oceano can’t pull money for fire services from other bugetary areas the same way incorporated cities do. And according to Bergman, it already spends 98% of its property taxes on the FCFA. So Oceano voters either approve a tax increase, or dissolve the FCFA.

This week council members also heard from residents concerned that even if everything works out, Arroyo Grande, which pays the most of the three communities, still won’t be able to afford it. Officials responded that, at least for the next fiscal cycle, the city was in a good spot financially.

Local firefighter Sean McMahon also spoke up.

“We’re an expensive business, expensive service, but we’re necessary,” McMahon said.

Arroyo Grande, Oceano and Grover Beach city staff have until the fall to draft a funding formula. If they can’t agree on one, the fire department will disband on June 1, 2020 and the three communities will each need to provide their own fire services.