As the final tally was announced on the afternoon of April 18, faces around the room were uniformly crestfallen.
For Five Cities Fire Authority Chief Mike Hubert, the three FCFA board members, and the handful of off-duty firefighters in attendance, this was the worst possible outcome: an emphatic rejection of the $1 million-per-year benefit assessment district fundraising effort they’d championed for months.
The results were grim. Of the 11,690 ballots sent to property owners in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, and Oceano, only 4,594 came back (a 39.3 percent turnout). A whopping 59.6 percent of those ballots opposed the assessment district, with only 40.4 in support.
FCFA Board Chair Bill Nicolls briefly expressed his disappointment with the outcome before adjourning the meeting. As the firefighters shuffled out, a stone-faced, resigned Hubert briefly answered questions from the media.
“I thought it might be a little closer than that, but I think things are probably still tough out there,” Hubert said. “I’m disappointed.”
Though Hubert was gracious and politically correct in defeat, a FCFA advocacy Facebook page called “Five Cities Fire Authority” posted a statement that was much more combative shortly after the meeting: “Today, property owners in the Five Cities voted overwhelmingly to eliminate six firefighter positions and stated their preference to have fewer personnel respond to fires, accidents, and calls for medical aid,” the April 18 post said. “It is hard to understand how fewer firefighters, older engines, and worn equipment comprises a formula for success.”
The post went on to show a photo from a March 31 structural fire in Arroyo Grande, with a FCFA firefighter battling the blaze. “I think he’s worth $10 an hour!” the post concluded.
The post was deleted only a few minutes after it was put up.
Late on April 21, local photographer Peter Klein identified himself as the founder of the Facebook page, and posted that, “No member of the Five Cities Fire Authority Board has ever authored a photo or written post to this page.”
When asked about the post by New Times, Hubert clarified that the page isn’t officially affiliated with the FCFA, doesn’t speak for the FCFA, and no FCFA employee wrote the post in question.
Hubert added that he’s currently discussing the situation with FCFA attorneys and was unable to comment in further detail. As of press time on April 23, Klein’s Facebook page had switched its name to “Five Cities Fire,” and the April 21 post had been removed.
The April 18 post is just one expression of the pervasive consternation that’s plagued South County as a result of the controversial assessment district measure—and has continued even after the measure’s failure.
The aforementioned assessment district was a proposed property tax increase in the FCFA service area (Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, and Oceano). According to Hubert, the assessment funds would’ve been targeted at four areas of need: apparatus replacement, equipment replacement, dispatch services, and personnel.
The effort required a 50 percent plus one margin from property owners in order to pass, and ballots were mailed out to property owners starting on Feb. 14, with polls closing on April 18.
As proposed, the cost per property would’ve varied based on acreage and type of property, but owners of single-family homes on an acre or less would have paid a maximum of $66 per year, and owners of multi-family homes would have been charged $49.24 per unit.
Community activist Julie Tacker—one of the primary opponents of the assessment—said she believed the measure failed to pass because the FCFA failed to justify the increase in taxation with solid data.
“I thought it would be much closer because everyone loves firemen, but I guess we were just preaching to the choir with opposing the assessment,” Tacker said. “I think sweeping changes are necessary at the FCFA—new leadership and a fresh approach—instead of just the status quo.”
Though public officials involved with the FCFA didn’t share Tacker’s glee at the failure of the assessment, they told New Times that serious discussions about the form and function of the FCFA were imminent and necessary.
“I’m extremely disappointed with the vote, but we now have to go back to the drawing board and try to provide the same level of service to the three communities,” said Joe Costello, who sits on the FCFA board as well as the Arroyo Grande City Council. “I really thought we were going to get support, but we didn’t.”
Costello said that, in addition to imminent budget discussions on the FCFA board, the city councils of Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach and the CSD board of directors in Oceano will also be discussing options for properly funding the FCFA in the coming weeks and months.
The main issue is the impending expiration of a two-year federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant that provided the FCFA with $1.2 million in funding. The assessment was largely designed to supplant the grant, which is set to expire in September. The grant funded six FCFA positions: three firefighters and three fire engineers.
Hubert said that now that the assessment measure has failed, the FCFA hopes to re-apply for the SAFER grant when the guidelines come out in the next few weeks. As of now, their likelihood and eligibility for re-securing the grant money is completely unknown, and the status of those six SAFER grant jobs is very tenuous.
Hubert, whose last day as chief will be May 6, said that Battalion Chief Riki Heath would be taking over as interim chief after that date. Heath plans to bring a preliminary budget incorporating the assessment’s failure to the next FCFA board meeting on May 16.
“We will always try to get the job done with whatever resources we have,” Hubert said. “That said, if we lose those six SAFER grant positions, there will be fewer people on hand, and our risk level will be elevated.
“It’s kind of like playing a football game with 11 guys or with eight guys,” he added. “You can physically do it with either, but which team do you think is going to be more successful?”
Matt Guerrero, president of the Oceano Community Services District, said that “everything is on the table” in the post-assessment world as his district and the two cities try to find a way to support the FCFA by maintaining acceptable staffing levels.
“The FCFA has really been a tremendous bargain for Oceano,” Guerrero said. “It really is too bad, and we want to try and protect these positions and fix the funding problem.”
When asked to sum up the future for FCFA funding, Costello was even more blunt.
“I think opposition to the assessment was short-sighted, because we’re talking about life safety issues here,” Costello said. “Our public relations efforts for the assessment were not good enough, and we’ve got until September to make it right.”
Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.