The future of San Luis Obispo County’s Five Cities Fire Authority will be in the hands of a select group of voters in the upcoming election. The fire department that serves Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano faced uncertainty in 2019 as the communities grappled with how to fund it. On March 3, Oceano voters will weigh if a tax hike is worth the cost of continued shared fire services.
Funding to support south county fire services came into question in the first half of 2019 after Arroyo Grande began discussing the possibility of pulling out of the Five Cities Fire Authority. Arroyo Grande’s mayor, Carren Ray Russon, told KCBX by phone in 2019 it wasn’t necessarily because the city wanted to split off, but if the communities couldn’t figure out how to fund the department, it might be required to.
“That did not come across in the staff report because it’s so scary to say we’re going to pull out and say we’re going to a one station fire department,” Ray Russom said. “That’s not really the intent.”
At the crux is Oceano. The cities of Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach pay for the biggest chunk of shared fire services. Over the past year they’ve been able to move money around to support fire, and the cities have more funding sources. Oceano is a community services district, and only has one funding source, which is property taxes, and of those taxes, 97% already goes towards fire services.
“Oceano is the only community services district in the county that provides fire and emergency medical services that does not have a supplemental tax to help fund the cost of those services,” Grover Beach City Manager Matt Bronson said this week as city leaders discussed the issue.
Oceano officials decided in the fall to put a tax in front of voters in 2020, which breaks down to $180 a year for property owners. That money will go towards continuing fire services and help keep Oceano’s station fully staffed. Grover Beach’s city council approved a resolution Monday in support of that ballot measure passing. Oceano Community Services District president Linda Austin was there.
“We are stronger together than we could ever be separately,” Austin said. “We’ve all benefited from the operational efficiencies created by these shared services since 2010.”
Oceano and Arroyo Grande city leaders are expected to pass their own resolutions in support of the ballot measure later this month. But if Oceano voters don’t pass the new tax March 3, the community managers say they will need to begin deep conversations about how to continue south county fire services in 2021.