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Cayucos Fire Dissolution in Supervisors’ Hands

The attempt to dissolve the Cayucos Fire District was scheduled to go before County Supervisors this past Tuesday, as the move to turn over the community’s fire department to the County moves forward.

The Cayucos Fire Protection District (District) board applied last September to the Local Agency Formation Commission or LAFCo., to dissolve the District and have the County take over fire services for the community.

Sounds simple, but dismantling any government agency, even a tiny little fire district, is a long drawn-out process that really hinges on money.

The District has been having troubles for years centered on two main themes — lack of money and trouble finding staff. The Department is a “volunteer” fire department, which in today’s California means a department made up of on-call paid firefighters, reserves really, who must still undergo much the same training as full-time firefighters. It’s a huge commitment of time and effort for not a lot of pay, and it’s gotten hard to find people willing to take on this role. Indeed, last fall the District faced a crisis when it discovered that it would not have a fire engineer/operator on duty at all times, which meant sometimes being unable to answer fire calls (though medical aids were unaffected) until it could hire and get someone trained.

And while the District asked LAFCo., to dissolve it last year, the County in October, asked that the process be halted, so Supervisors could hold a discussion on the issue. That discussion was to take place March 13, after The Bay News’ deadline.

There are two interconnected issues to discuss — the level of service to be provided to the community and the money available to pay for it.

“Before LAFCO can make a decision regarding the dissolution,” reads a staff report by County Administration’s Lisa Howe, “they need the County Board of Supervisors to specify the level of service, if any, the County will provide if the Fire District is dissolved.”

While one might think fire protection a basic function of County Government, but that isn’t necessarily the case. “If the Cayucos Fire Protection District were to dissolve,” Howe’s report reads, “the County would become the ‘successor’ agency. In this role, the County would take possession of the District’s assets and liabilities ‘for the purpose of winding up the affairs of a dissolved district.’ This is the limit of the County’s mandated responsibility. The County is not mandated to provide fire protection service to the community of Cayucos if the District dissolves. Under state law, counties may choose to provide fire protection services, but are not mandated to do so, nor are counties liable if they do not provide fire protection services.”

The bottom line is, “Fire protection services are therefore a discretionary activity of the County Board of Supervisors.” However, County Fire through its contract with Cal Fire, does provide fire services to a number of unincorporated areas in SLO County, though most, as in Los Osos, are done through a contract for services with an agency, like the Los Osos Community Services District.

“The County Fire Department is responsible for providing fire and related emergency services for all the unincorporated areas in the county not served by a city, or a special district,” Howe’s report said. “Currently, the County Fire Department operates out of 15 fire stations providing service to an area of over 3,200 square miles.”

If Supervisors decide to extend fire protection services to Cayucos, the money the District collects now through a property tax fee would be available to help pay for it, which the report lists as “$568,905 in total combined Property Tax, Fire Special Tax, and Weed Abatement Tax and $70,301 in other revenue for a total of $639,206.”

But not all of these money sources would be available so, subtract a couple of money sources and the City’s analysis is based on revenue of $601,000 a year. Unfortunately, under the County’s analysis, that isn’t going to cut it.

The department doesn’t have excess monies to cover things like new equipment needs, and it’s main fire engines and EMS squad truck will soon need to be replaced, as well. Indeed the lack of an equipment reserve fund was one of the reasons the District Board decided it needed to dissolve, especially after the failure in June 2016 of a tax hike that would have raised the fire tax rate five fold.

“If the County were to become the successor provider of fire protection services, the County would inherit all of Cayucos Fire’s equipment, apparatus, and facilities,” Howe’s report said. “Any assets transferred to County Fire would need to meet current applicable standards. This could mean required repairs, retrofitting, replacement, or disposal of equipment, including radio equipment, Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus, and Personal Protective Equipment.”

Even the old firehouse on Cayucos Drive will need to be remodeled to accommodate living quarters for full time firefighters to stay overnight. Last September the County hired Vanir Construction Management, Inc., to do a “Facility Condition Assessment” that pegged the cost for expansion/remodeling at $250,000 (which can be paid over 10 years), and renovations to the stationhouse at $890,000 for a “rough estimate” of some $1.1 million.

The County is looking at different levels of service for Cayucos and could have LAFCo., place a condition on the agreement to dissolve the District “based on the passing of an additional tax needed to fund the service.”

So while Cayucos voters rejected the District’s 2016 fire tax hike, it may come down to passing a tax hike in order to continue having any fire services at all.

And if Supervisors reject the proposal outright, the District could be forced to continue on, providing whatever fire services it can afford. Such a change in the status of a fire department could severely hurt the chances of obtaining affordable fire insurance for homes and commercial buildings.

Another option being looked at is to accept the District’s dissolution and have the staff work on formation of a countywide fire district. LAFCo., has apparently begun studying this, planning a study session at its March 15 meeting, something Cayucos’ dilemma has triggered.

“The study session will provide an overview of the fire services provided on a countywide basis with the goal to better understand the fire services provided to various parts of the county,” Howe said. “The dissolution proposal from the Cayucos Fire Protection District has generated interest on the topic of future fire services and governance.”

Supervisors were given three basic options:

• LAFCo. could proceed with dissolution and the County would wind up the affairs of the District and it would cease to exist;

• LAFCo. could deny the dissolution request and the District could continue to operate as best it can for as long as it can; and,

• LAFCo. could condition dissolution on a successful Prop 218 vote. LAFCo. could set a condition that the residents of the district must pass an increase in the fire special tax before dissolution would be granted. The aim would be to ensure sufficient funding for services exists before responsibility is passed on to a successor agency [SLO County].

Steve Beightler, a retired Cal Fire Battalion Chief and Cayucos Fire District Board member, sent out a notice on a local Neighbors network, “We need to have as many people as possible attend the meeting to show their support for the County assuming fire protection in Cayucos,” he wrote. “This has been a long journey and your support has been so appreciated and valued. We are now down to the last critical steps.”

By Neil Farrell

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