Facing a September 2014 expiration date on a federal grant that covers six of its 14 full-time field positions, the misleadingly named Five Cities Fire Authority (FCFA) is seeking direction and approval from the three communities it covers in regard to implementing a special tax that would make up the difference, and then some.
According to Fire Chief Joel Aranaz, the money would allow the authority to maintain current staffing levels for response teams while adding a battalion chief specializing in fire prevention and a fire engine mechanic. The department now sends its equipment to Santa Maria and other faraway areas for serious repairs. Also included in the tax proposal are plans to replace aging equipment, improve training, and move to a single dispatch center. The Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach police departments both field calls for the FCFA, and on busy nights, it’s difficult for the two agencies to keep track of what equipment is available, according to Aranaz.
On Feb. 25, the Grover Beach City Council voted 4-0 to support a parcel tax that would generate $1.44 million for the FCFA by charging most residential property owners $5.25 per month. Commercial lots would be subject to a $37 per month charge. This kind of special tax requires support from two-thirds of registered voters, and it could appear on the ballot in August of this year or June 2014.
The proposal didn’t fare so well the next night, when it was brought before the Arroyo Grande City Council. Voters in that city rejected a special tax in June 2012 that would have built a new police station, and with that defeat fresh in their memory, council members were reluctant to support a tax that would raise the per capita cost of first response services by nearly 40 percent, especially when the request seemed to be driven by non-mandated national standards for fire response, which only accounts for 14 percent of the departments calls, according to staff.
“There are clearly essential needs we need to fund,” Councilmember Caren Ray said. “I could support a lesser amount, but if we take this to the voters, I want to make sure we nail it.”
Ultimately, the council voted 5-0 to approve a resolution supporting the concept of a special tax, but they directed staff to come back with more detailed analysis of personnel needs and costs, accountability measures, and several alternative budgets for lower tax amounts.
Aranaz was scheduled to take the matter to the Oceano Community Services District Board of Supervisors on Feb. 27—after New Times’ press deadline. He told New Times the FCFA could technically put any tax it wants on the ballot, but he wants to work toward getting support from all concerned jurisdictions. Without them, the measure will likely fail, he said.