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Oceano ad-hoc committee to study fire services after special tax fails

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Voters in the Oceano Community Services District (OCSD) doused local leaders' attempts to reignite support for a controversial fire tax this year after residents shot it down in 2020.

Final counts in the San Luis Obispo County primary elections (which won't be certified until July 15) show that the flat parcel tax called Measure A-22 received 57.6 percent of votes, falling short of the almost two-thirds it needed to pass.

STUDYING SERVICES The OCSD appointed board members Karen White and Shirley Gibson, respectively, to investigate alternative fire service plans before the region leaves the Fire Cities Fire Authority next year. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • STUDYING SERVICES The OCSD appointed board members Karen White and Shirley Gibson, respectively, to investigate alternative fire service plans before the region leaves the Fire Cities Fire Authority next year.

The measure was a $180 per year tax paid by each property owner, which would have helped maintain rapid response times for 911 medical emergency and fire services through the Five Cities Fire Authority (FCFA). It first appeared on ballots two years ago, when it failed to hit the two-thirds majority by 11 votes.

Now, officials are grappling with scenarios where the OCSD could either enter a contract with the FCFA or divest powers to the county altogether. OCSD board president Karen White told New Times that she and fellow board member Shirley Gibson were assigned to an ad-hoc committee to help figure out next steps.

"We can work with the manager and with the fire department," White said. "We will study the situation and we will bring either a recommendation or several different proposals to the entire [OCSD] board. We can't act but we can investigate and bring ideas back to the whole board."

White added that the OCSD's current agreement with FCFA for fire and medical services doesn't end until June 30, 2023. During this wind down period, the FCFA will examine its new nature as an organization without the OCSD. Set up in 2010, it comprises the cities of Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach and the OCSD, with the latter contributing more than $10 million to the authority since its inception.

"We can give up our fire service [powers]," White said. "The other thing we can do after we leave the FCFA is contract with them. Some communities pay money directly to Cal Fire for service ... there are all kinds of different deals."

But community members have complained that they feel left in the dark about what county-run fire services could look like. White and other OCSD board members worry about losing out on roughly $1 million each year in property taxes if the county takes over fire services. That amount would fund three 24-hour days per week of fire service, according to previous New Times reporting.

Before the June primary, County Administrative Officer Wade Horton told the OCSD that it would be "premature" to detail a backup plan if the measure fails. Horton did not respond to New Times' request for comment by press time.

Not everyone is pleased with the new ad-hoc committee's set up. While White told New Times that the committee was waiting to meet until after the Fourth of July weekend, Charles Varni, the vice chair of the Oceano Advisory Council, said he was unaware of the committee's formation.

"This is just more of the same old BS of the elite in Oceano who want to protect the status quo, preventing new voices from being involved in this process," he said.

Varni, a vocal critic of Measure A-22, added that he wants the OCSD board to ask the county to redistribute the taxes they collect from the region back into the community. According to Varni, Oceano has drummed up $500,000 in transient occupancy taxes for the county since 2022.

"All of that money went into the county's general funds. None of it was earmarked for use in Oceano. For all we know, that money could have gone to pay for fire services in Cayucos, or for lights in Nipomo," Varni said. "Oceano is like a third world country where our resources are taken from us and we really don't get much back. Oceanans are sick and tired of that, and that's why the tax was defeated." Δ

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