Work to dissolve the Cayucos Fire District reached a milestone this week when the county agency that oversees such matters concluded a public protest vote.
David Church, the executive director of the Local Agency Formation Commission or LAFCo., said his board voted in August to put the fire district dissolution to a protest vote of property owners, and that voting period ended Sept. 24, when a public hearing on the matter was to be held in the County Supervisor’s Chambers at the County Government Center.
Results of that protest vote were not available by press time.
Back in August, Church said, the LAFCo., board held a hearing and a few people spoke about the dissolution but there wasn’t a lot of opposition.
The board approved a proposal that was worked out by the County and the fire district, wherein County Supervisors agreed unanimously to take over fire protection services for Cayucos through its existing contract with Cal Fire, and provide full coverage with full time firefighters around the clock.
Church said they sent out nearly 4,000 notices of the protest vote to property owners in Cayucos, informing them of the Sept. 24 hearing. A downloadable form was posted on LAFCo.’s website to protest the dissolution and Church said they also provided them at the LAFCo., offices.
Church said under the State Codes, if they got 25 percent of the landowners voting “No,” then the matter would be put to a full vote at an election for all registered voters living within the fire district, which encompasses all of the Cayucos business areas and residential neighborhoods, plus some outlying areas up Old Creek and Cayucos Creek roads, and a few other small patches on the outskirts of town that are within the district’s sphere of influence.
“The regular voters formed the district,” Church said, “so they have the ultimate decision, if it gets that far.”
The key, he said, is that County Supervisors already agreed to take the district over and provide fire services. LAFCo., had been waiting for that to become official before going through a dissolution process.
“We were waiting to see whether or not the County would take it over,” Church said. “That was part of the decision making — would they provide it and fund it as well?”
In Cayucos the fire department has been hit with a number of nagging issues — a lack of available personnel willing to undertake the huge investment of time and effort required; a lack of money; and the need soon to replace some very expensive equipment and having no reserve fund to do so.
A so-called Amador contract with Cal Fire to pay to have its seasonal fire station in Cayucos remain open year round, also lapsed and the District couldn’t afford a new contract.
But perhaps the biggest blow came in the June 2016 Primary Election, when Cayucos voters soundly rejected a ballot measure that would have greatly raised a special fire tax to cover the costs of a full time professional fire department.
Near the end of 2017, the department hit a crisis when it realized that with the retirement of its fire chief, they couldn’t provide proper staffing because there weren’t enough qualified people within the department to staff a full complement fire crew all the time; leaving the town with no immediate fire fighting capability during some of its shifts, however, medical aid service was unaffected.
It would be about 6 weeks before they could hire someone and get them in place.
According to a spread sheet put together by Church for LAFCo.’s review, the Cayucos Fire District’s charge billed on property taxes totals just $291,000 a year, a fee that will not go away after the County takes over the department.
The County takes more than $3 million a year in property taxes for its general fund, which represents the normal property taxes.
In addition to that regular tax, property owners also pay several additional fees for different purposes, for example, the Cayucos Sanitary District gets $812,000 a year through property tax bills; County libraries get $228,000; the Cayucos Elementary School District and Coast Union School District get a collective $2.3 million a year; and the SLO County Community College District (Cuesta College) gets $822,000.
Even the County Schools get $522,000 a year from Cayucos and overall, some $12 million is collected via property tax bills every year.
Cayucos’ problems with its fire department are unfortunately, not unusual.
Church said other small districts like the Templeton and Oceano community services districts, are also having trouble funding their fire departments.
“It’s happening around the State,” Church said. “The costs of training keep going up and State standards for staffing and equipment keep increasing, many of these small fire districts and CSD’s are finding it hard to keep up with the costs.”
He noted the example of what’s happening in San Diego, which has 18 or 19 small fire districts surrounding the city. One fire district just dissolved and was taken over by Cal Fire and the others will likely follow suit.
County Supervisors, when they agreed to take over fire service responsibility in Cayucos, also instructed the County staff to work on finding a way to help fund fire service in all of the unincorporated towns.
Church is also working on this, he said.
“I don’t know if it’ll be through a contract. We’re working with County staff to help fund fire services [possibly] through an increase in property taxes. The problem is that the costs keep going up. Fire service is one of the more expensive services to provide.”
With a “volunteer” fire department, which Cayucos technically is, the firefighters must still undergo the same training as full time firefighters, taking the same risks when on duty and ideally, living nearby in case of being called up for a big incident. That’s a tough sell in a town that’s as expensive to live in as Cayucos.
Also, “Reserves are always looking for that full time job,” Church said. “And there can be big fluctuations in volunteer and reserve staffs.”
As part of its agreement with the County, the fire district’s single fire station on Cayucos Avenue will undergo an estimated $1 million remodel to accommodate firefighters staying overnight in order to provide fire protection service 24-hours a day.
The department will also soon need a new fire engine, an expense that will cost several hundred thousand dollars.
By Neil Farrell