Opinion » Commentaries

Two reasons to vote no, again, on Oceano's fire tax



Oceano Community Services District (OCSD) has placed a tax measure on the ballot to raise $410,000 annually to fund full-time emergency medical and fire services in Oceano. It should be defeated. Why? It's unfair and unneeded.

It is unfair because it taxes every parcel of land a flat rate of $180. If you have a 1,000-square-foot house you pay the same as someone with a 2,000-square-foot home or a 10,000-square-foot apartment complex or a 50-unit mobile home park. Two years ago OCSD floated this very same tax measure and it was defeated by a narrow margin, primarily because a critical mass of citizens thought it was unfair. Now, two years later, they have returned with the very same proposal expecting a different outcome (one definition of insanity).

But this time they took $40,000 of taxpayer money to hire a consultant to develop a progressive tax option, one where the more developed your property is the more you pay in fire tax. The tax rate was pegged at 14 cents a square foot. It's very straightforward. A 1,000-square-foot home would pay $140 annually; a 2,000-square-foot home would pay $280 annually; a 10,000-square-foot apartment complex would pay $1,040. With this report in hand, they compared the two options—flat rate at $180 or progressive rate at 14 cents a square foot. Members of the public strongly encouraged them to adopt the progressive rate, warning of another defeat like two years ago if they did not. And what did they do? Chose the flat rate with the very lame explanation that it was "easier and less confusing." Never mind that the county assessor has no problem computing the square footage of developed space on every parcel of land in Oceano.

Why would they choose the flat tax option again? Very simply: It saves the large property owners in Oceano tens of thousands of dollars each year in emergency medical and fire services. Example No. 1 is Linda Austin and her family business Guiton Realty, purportedly the largest owner of residential real estate in the community. Linda is past president of the OCSD, current president of the Vitality Advisory Council (Supervisor Lynn Compton's surrogate campaign committee), and past chair of the Oceano Advisory Council. Linda argues that she is actually paying more tax because her 30 vacant parcels are costing her $180 a piece (under the progressive tax only developed parcels are taxed). What she fails to mention is the large numbers of rentals and personal homes she and her family own and will only pay the $180 flat tax rate on (and assuredly passed on to renters). Likewise, the many-thousand-square-foot agriculture processing facilities will only pay $180 per developed parcel. This is not a criticism of wealth. It is a criticism of not paying your fair share which is, well, unfair.

Even more egregious, and more challenging, is the fact that we Oceano residents don't need to tax ourselves more money to fund critical safety services. Our community already generates the tax revenues to fund the needed $410,000. Over the past two years Oceano has been averaging more than $500,000 in tourist bed taxes that every person in a hotel room, vacation rental, or Airbnb pays each day (12 percent of the room rental) while staying in the community. All of these taxes go directly into the county general fund, and the supervisors decide how they will be spent. Remember, this is money generated mostly by small businesses that cater to tourists—that are serviced and protected by our emergency medical and fire workers. Cities keep all their tourist bed taxes and use that income to help pay for essential services. Unincorporated areas see all of that money going to the county.

Everyone who cares to observe knows that Oceano has been neglected for decades. It's an official "disadvantaged community" and an economic opportunity zone. Unlike our neighboring beach cities, our community's growth is stifled by a beachfront dominated by autos; a sewage treatment plant serving Pismo Beach, Grover Beach, and Arroyo Grande; and an airport covering more than 60 acres of prime coastal land, which serves a couple of dozen private pilots and severely limits development of lower-cost housing, public parks, and new commercial buildings. Sort of like a classic "first and third world" relationship, tax monies flow to the county from Oceano but they don't flow back at the same rate.

Continuing to raise taxes on ourselves simply enables this continued unfairness. It is time (again) for Oceano residents to stand up and say no to the unfair and unneeded "fire tax." Only then can we sit down and negotiate a fair arrangement for emergency medical and fire services, which we already generate the funding to pay for. Hopefully new county and Oceano community leadership will help make that a long overdue reality. Δ

Charles Varni is a 22-year resident of Oceano, a retired professor of sociology, and vice chair of the Oceano Advisory Council.

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