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Calif. community moves from regional fire authority to county fire protection

Oceana officials have withdrawn from a regional fire authority and will receive service from CAL FIRE San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach Fire Department

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By Stephanie Zappelli
The Tribune

SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY, Calif. — San Luis Obispo County may soon take responsibility for fire protection services for Oceano — but services won’t change much in the South County community.

On Tuesday, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to start the process for assuming responsibility of fire protection services for Oceano.

Oceano, which is home to about 7,100 residents, has been in the process of withdrawing from the joint agreement that set up its longstanding fire department, Five Cities Fire Authority, because of financial issues.

State law does not require the county to provide Oceano with fire services, but on Tuesday, supervisors agreed that it aligns with the board’s priority of supporting public safety.

“We do not have a statutory obligation to extend fire service, but we certainly have a moral obligation to do so,” Supervisor Bruce Gibson said.

On Tuesday, the board also directed staff to draft a plan where the county pays the Five Cities Fire Authority to continue to protect Oceano.

Supervisor Jimmy Paulding, whose district includes Oceano, noted that the Fire Authority already does “a really good job at providing fire service” to the community. The agency has experience serving South County residents, and an existing plan for collaborating with the nearby Pismo Beach Fire Department and Cal Fire when needed, he said.

The Board of Supervisors and the San Luis Obispo Local Agency Formation Commission must now approve the plan for service once it is developed.

Why does Oceano need a new fire service provider?

In 2010, Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano united to create the Five Cities Fire Authority to provide emergency fire and medical services to the area.

The cost of fire protection services skyrocketed over the years, partly because departments had to hire full-time staff to compensate for a decline in volunteer firefighters, county administrative analyst Mia Trevelyan said in the staff report for Tuesday’s meeting.

Departments also faced increased salaries, health care costs and retirement plan costs, Trevelyan said.

In March 2020 and June 2022, Oceano voters rejected two separate ballot measures to bolster funding for fire services. Without this additional funding, Oceano couldn’t keep up with its share of the cost of operating the Five Cities Fire Authority, according to Trevelyan.

On Jan. 11, the Oceano Community Services District voted to take steps to remove itself financially from the Five Cities Fire Authority. By June 30, Oceano had officially withdrawn from the fire authority, though the agency will continue to provide interim emergency fire services until June 30, 2024, while the community and county figure out a new service provider.

Supervisors pick Five Cities Fire Authority to cover Oceano services

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors directed staff to design a plan that maintains the Fire Authority’s current level of service to Oceano.

Right now, the Five Cities Fire Authority operates two fire engines out of Arroyo Grande and one out of Grover Beach. Two engines are staffed with three personal, while one engine is staffed with two personnel, according to Trevelyan.

Traveling to Oceano takes between 7 and 11 minutes from the Arroyo Grande station, and 7 and 9 minutes from Grover Beach.

Contracting with Five Cities Fire Authority would cost the county about $1.8 million per year, Trevelyan said.

Part of the funding would come from Oceano’s property tax revenue, which totaled $1,296,431 for the 2022-23 fiscal year, according to the staff report. The plan would, however, leave a $498,783 annual operational funding gap that the county would have to fill.

The county’s cost of services could also still change during negotiations with the Fire Authority and the Oceano Community Services District, according to the staff report.

The board did consider whether it should appoint Cal Fire, which provides fire services to other unincorporated areas of the county, instead of the Five Cities Fire Authority.

If Cal Fire serviced Oceano out of the Nipomo Fire Station, response times would increase to 11 to 12 minutes, Trevelyan wrote in the staff report.

Alternatively, if Cal Fire operated from the Oceano Fire Station owned by the Oceano Community Services District, response times would lower to between 3 to 7 minutes — but not without other hurdles.

The county would have to fund renovations to the facility to bring it up to code, the staff report said.

Matthew Bronson, Grover Beach city manager and Five Cities Fire Authority CEO, urged the board to contract with Five Cities Fire Authority instead of Cal Fire.

“Oceano is our neighbor as part of our interconnected Five Cities area, and we do believe we are stronger together,” Bronson said at the meeting. “It’s in the best interest of all parties to continue the service delivery model, which provides quality, timely and cost effective response.”

Bronson also asked the board to help increase staffing levels from two personnel per fire engine to three. Hiring more staff would allow the Five Cities Fire Authority to focus on fire prevention as well as emergency response, he said.

The board, however, did not direct staff to increase staffing levels, as it was too costly.

Meanwhile, Oceano Community Services District President Allene Villa urged the county to renovate and fully staff the Oceano fire station to reduce emergency response times.

To offset the cost of renovations, she advised the board to negotiate with the fire authority to reduce costs and seek outside funding for disadvantaged communities.

“A professional fire and emergency service department with improved rapid response makes the difference between life and death,” Villa said.

Her second choice was contracting with the Five Cities Fire Authority, she said, as it is already familiar with Oceano.

“Our underserved community of Oceano deserves quality and rapid emergency and fire services,” Villa said. “Through the decades, many in our community have lost faith in our county leaders due to the lack of community improvement projects in our area and services. Please help restore our faith in county leaders by supporting what is best for Oceano.”

Paulding said that choosing to contract with the Five Cities Fire Authority struck the right balance between providing a quality service while being mindful of the county’s budget.

“We’re not getting everything,” Paulding said, but the plan “does, in fact, continue to provide the same level of service that the community has now.”

He said the board could consider funding renovations for the Oceano fire station and additional staff for the Five Cities Fire Authority in the future.

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