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New Times / Commentary

The following article was posted on April 16th, 2014, in the New Times - Volume 28, Issue 38 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 28, Issue 38

Numbers don't lie

Get a clearer picture of the benefit assessment while you can

BY JULIE TACKER

Retired since 2006, former Arroyo Grande/Grover Beach Fire Department fire Chief Terry Fibich (“Support the benefit assessment measure,” April 10) attempts to “clear up some misconceptions” associated with recently extended the Five Cities Fire Authority (FCFA) assessment vote. He suggests the 2010 formation of the FCFA was formed not “just” to save money. Fibich personally sold “the city councils and community groups, mostly stressing elimination of redundancies, better response times, and improved levels of service.” The campaign to consolidate the three fire companies of Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, and Oceano in no uncertain terms was to save money.

Fibich apparently hasn’t seen the FCFA budgets in over eight years since retiring. Numbers don’t lie; the cost to operate FCFA has gone up nearly every year since he left the department. The most notable increased level of service was realized with a $1.2 million (one-time money) SAFER grant that has funded three positions for the last two years. Without the assessment funding, FCFA will have to operate as they did before the grant.

Fibich tries to explain a fundamental flaw in the formation of the FCFA: deferred budgeting for equipment and apparatus replacement to a future funding mechanism, sourced by the ratepayers. What Fibich, and others, may not understand is that a majority of the $1 million-plus annual (in perpetuity) assessment is for salaries and benefits to retain those three positions acquired through the grant; the proposed assessment funds for the important capital items (i.e. equipment and apparatus) goes down each year if costs associated with the three positions rise.

Fibich mischaracterizes two important points: One, the signed ballots are public record. While they may not be posted anywhere, the assessment must comply with California Government Code § 53753(e)(2). The FCFA has to make them available to anyone interested in viewing them for a minimum of two years.

“… During and after the tabulation, the assessment ballots and the information used to determine the weight of each ballot shall be treated as disclosable public records, as defined in Section 6252, and equally available for inspection by the proponents and the opponents of the proposed assessment … .”

Two, the FCFA Board has the ability to increase the assessment by 4 percent as based on the Southern California Consumer Price Index (CPI); if the CPI is more than 4 percent, the FCFA may apply the difference to any subsequent year should that years CPI fall below 4 percent.

Fibich also suggests that each of the city councils and Oceano CSD voted “unanimously” to pursue the assessment. The Oceano CSD record reflects no such vote. Updates and discussions related to pursuing the assessment came and went with little public participation in all three communities—suggesting poor verbiage on the agendas or perhaps the items were taken up very late into the meetings. Just one day before ballots went out in the mail on Thursday, Feb. 13, at 3 p.m., only the FCFA Board saw and approved the Assessment Engineer’s Report identifying the benefit for each of the 15,000 parcels. The Special Meeting, noticed just 24 hours earlier, was attended by only two members of the community and a dozen or more intimidating firefighters dressed in blue

What Fibich calls “public discussions” at meetings and community gatherings were actually presentations by current FCFA Chief Hubert advocating in favor of the assessment. Chief Hubert also went, on company time—dressed in uniform—to individuals’ homes to “answer questions” about the assessment for those who had concerns surrounding the perceived benefits.

Fibich mentions that several ambulance companies respond simultaneously to emergencies, but doesn’t mention that Cal Fire, who serves all the adjacent communities, also responds to emergency calls within the FCFA jurisdiction. Cal Fire and FCFA have a mutual aide contract that makes for fine emergency services throughout the FCFA’s boundaries. Yet, Fibich’s opinion piece is silent to requesting a competitive bid from Cal Fire to perform the duties of FCFA. Not only would Cal Fire save the ratepayers money, Cal Fire would absorb the FCFA staff into its statewide agency, offering quality continuing education and training that FCFA never could afford to these dedicated individuals. Cal Fire provides opportunities for advancement and the ability to move almost anywhere in the state. There is no cost to FCFA to obtain a quote; why the continued resistance?

The consultant who is performing the assessment should have his feet held firmly to the proverbial fire in light of the recently discovered error surrounding postage-paid return envelopes containing the wrong return date, which forced the window to vote to remain open longer. This snafu, along with countless other mistakes in setting up the district, should at the very least cost him the promised $14,500 bonus he is contracted to receive, should the vote pass.

FCFA has not done its due diligence, preferring to raise revenue before finding ways to cut costs, and ignoring the economies of scale Cal Fire can provide. Property owners also need to know that it is possible to change your vote all the way up to the FCFA 2 p.m. hearing on Friday, April 18, at the Grover Beach City Council chambers.

Julie Tacker has served on the Los Osos Community Services District Emergency Services Advisory Committee since 2004 when Cal Fire was contracted to serve the community of 14,500. Send comments to the executive editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.