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OCSD discusses opposition to contract transferring Oceano's fire services to county

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Fire services remain a touchy subject in Oceano after a recently approved contract transfers responsibility for the area to San Luis Obispo County.

"As the past [Oceano Community Services District] board member and committee member in support of the 2020 fire tax increase, I'm here to say I told you so," previous OCSD board president Karen White said during public comment at the June 26 board of directors meeting. "I warned them that if Oceano did not increase its tax revenue to fund fire services that went to San Luis County for help, the district would lose its fire station."

MAYBE GOOD, MAYBE BAD The Oceano Community Services District debates whether the recent transfer of fire services to SLO County will be positive for residents. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • MAYBE GOOD, MAYBE BAD The Oceano Community Services District debates whether the recent transfer of fire services to SLO County will be positive for residents.

In both 2020 and 2022, Oceano voters shot down paying an annual flat tax of $180 per parcel owner to help maintain rapid response times from the Five Cities Fire Authority. However, White claims that current Oceano Community Services District (OCSD) president Charles Varni is responsible for the tax's lack of votes and in turn is responsible for increasing response times from three minutes to 11 minutes.

"He opposed the fire tax and reassured voters that San Luis Obispo County would take care of Oceano's fire need," she said. "I guess that is why the community is calling this the Varni Tax."

Starting on Jan. 1, 2025—if the county's Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) approves it—the county and the Five Cities Fire Authority will provide Oceano fire protection and emergency services through Grover Beach and Arroyo Grande fire stations, according to previous New Times reporting.

According to a staff report from the June 18 SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting, a minimum of two personnel per engine and response times of seven to 11 minutes will come from the Arroyo Grande Fire Station and seven to nine minutes from Grover Beach to ensure that Oceano residents receive the same level of service they currently receive.

OCSD board member Shirley Gibson said "the most concerning consequence" is that emergency response times will be longer and proposed that the district try to put a third fire tax on the 2024 ballot.

"We're doubling the response times that were achieved by the fire authority and that was five minutes or less and that was when all three stations were working. Currently with only two stations working, Grover and Arroyo, the response time will be more like seven to 11 minutes," she said. "Those additional minutes are extremely significant to a critically ill person, and I hope that no one has to go through that. Because of all those reasons, at least one other board member is interested in having this discussion about putting a fire tax proposal on the ballot."

Board member Allene Villa said Oceano was in a sad situation she'll be "praying over" and agreed with Gibson that an increase in response times is very concerning.

"I don't know if we can put another tax, but I'm certain it would pass this time," she said. "Now that reality hit you, you know, you've seen right doesn't really want to lose what it has."

According to the contract between the county and FCFA, the OCSD will supply the county with $1.3 million of its property tax revenue and the public facility fire fees that are collected by the OCSD will be transferred to the county.

The OCSD will also perform a one-time transfer of $2.5 million in assets and liabilities to the county, which includes the district's fire station.

"Some of the things I wanted to inform the Oceano community about are that because of divestiture, the OCSD is not going to be the same. First because we are losing one of our major powers, fire protection. We will no longer have local control of this building, the fire station, and we don't have a say in the matter," Gibson said. "We will also lose over 96 percent of our property taxes that will all go to the county to cover our fire protection."

OCSD president Varni responded to Gibson and said there's not going to be as big of a change as she's making it seem.

"The statement that all of our public facilities monies, which we get from development, will go to the county, go to fire services—that's the only thing they could go to and that's been the rule of law for years," he said. Δ

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