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The following article was posted on April 17th, 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

Firefight: After months of sparring, critics and supporters of a fire assessment await the final outcome

BY RHYS HEYDEN

Depending on where you stand, the proposed assessment district for the Five Cities Fire Authority (FCFA) is either an essential step to maintain vastly improved fire services or a misdirected, onerous tax increase designed to bail out irresponsible spending.

Although the FCFA—a consolidated fire service that’s served the communities of Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, and Oceano since 2010—was formed to provide a more efficient, local, and cost-effective approach to local fire and emergency response, critics say the FCFA hasn’t lived up to those goals.

“The FCFA has not done its due diligence,” said local activist Julie Tacker. “They are preferring to raise revenues before finding ways to cut costs.”

Tacker is referring to the aforementioned assessment district: a controversial proposed property tax increase in the FCFA service area that would raise roughly $1 million per year for the authority. The effort requires a 50 percent plus one margin from property owners in order to pass, and ballots were mailed out to property owners starting Feb. 14.

If the assessment passes, cost per property would vary based on acreage and type of property, but owners of single-family homes on an acre or less would pay a maximum of $66 per year, and owners of multi-family homes would be charged $49.24 per unit.

Ballots will be accepted until April 18, at which point they’ll be tabulated, and the results of the ballot measure will be publicly announced.

FCFA Chief Mike Hubert told New Times that the assessment is vital for the authority to maintain current service levels. He said that, if approved, the assessment funds would be targeted at four areas of need: apparatus replacement, equipment replacement, dispatch services, and personnel.

“The money will stay local, and it will stabilize funding for the future of those needs,” Hubert said. “I understand why people are sensitive about the money, and I don’t blame them, but this is the best way for us to continue providing a good service to the community.”

As Hubert and the FCFA have pushed for the assessment in the past few months, however, a vocal contingent of locals has pushed back.

Opponents of the assessment have cited inadequate public discussion, glaring errors in the assessment process, and lackluster cost accounting as their primary motivations for opposing the measure.

Arroyo Grande resident Otis Page, who has also been a vocal opponent of the assessment, called it “ridiculous” and stormed out of a April 4 FCFA Board meeting after accusing board members of “continued stonewalling.”

Of the 10 speakers at the meeting, about half were in support and half were opposed to the assessment.

During that April 4 meeting, the board announced that the wrong date had been printed on the ballot envelope, necessitating keeping the voting period open until April 18, two weeks longer than had been planned.

As of April 4, FCFA board chair Bill Nicolls said the authority had only received about 4,200 completed ballots of the 11,690 in total that were mailed to property owners.

Tacker and Page have both advocated for pursuing a Cal Fire quote for fire and emergency services, as they believe the economies of scale for the statewide agency could save the community more money than the FCFA.

When asked why the FCFA hasn’t pursued a Cal Fire quote, Hubert said that policymakers (the impetus for such a decision) haven’t asked for such a quote, and that Cal Fire wouldn’t save money anyway.

“When you really do the research, they are not saving you money, and we have done the research,” Hubert said. “I’m glad that people in Pismo Beach and Los Osos are happy with their Cal Fire service, but it’s not any more cost-effective.”

Hubert said that the authority is planning for both possible outcomes with the assessment, and added that the FCFA would manage and “do our best” if it didn’t pass, although positions would be lost and service levels would likely suffer.

The FCFA Board will publicly announce the result of the FCFA assessment district ballot measure on April 18 at 2 p.m., at the Grover Beach City Council Chambers, 154 South 8th Street, Grover Beach.

Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at rheyden@newtimesslo.com.