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Budget shortfall stretching Five Cities firefighters and first responders thin

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Posted at 10:37 PM, Mar 01, 2023

Some significant changes are coming to fire and emergency services in areas served by the Five Cities Fire Authority.

The Five Cities Fire Authority is facing a major budget shortfall as Oceano prepares to leave the joint powers agreement.

The future of fire and emergency services was the topic of an at-times heated debate at city council meetings in Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach this week.

“The communities that we serve have fixed their contribution rates, so we’ve been living in a flat budget for a four-year period,” said Five Cities Fire Chief Stephen Lieberman. “Everything’s gone up price-wise and we’ve managed all that and stayed within budget, so it’s been rough.”

The Five Cities Fire Authority serves the Cities of Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and unincorporated Oceano--but that’s about to change.

The Oceano Community Services District will leave the Five Cities fire authority on June 30th.

This comes after a ballot measure to raise property taxes and pay for fire services failed to pass last June.

“The Cities of Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach have been working closely on ‘what does the future of fire service look like in our two communities? —what structure, what governance and what funding do we need,” asked Grover Beach City Manager Matthew Bronson.

A budget shortfall in the millions is also looming over the Five Cities Fire Authority.

“It is challenging. It is a lot of work. There are many moving pieces,” explained McDonald.

An outside consultant says the City of Arroyo Grande will need to spend an additional $1.7 million a year.

Grover Beach will need to increase its annual contribution by a million dollars, according to projections.

“The reality is we are likely to essentially run down our reserves in order to continue paying for the service to make up for that deficit,” said McDonald.

Chief Lieberman says that firefighters and first responders are already being stretched thin.

“We’re short on staffing which means that people that are here are working on forced overtime which means they have less time to relax and have less time to spend with their families. So, that creates a whole other level of stress and anxiety for them,” explained Lieberman, who adds that the department urgently needs more investment in its fire stations, equipment and personnel.

“They’re well-intended first responders who love the community and want to provide compassionate and professional care. They’ve continued to do that through this period of uncertainty and we’re just hopeful that the member communities and the Oceano Community Services District come to a resolution,” said Chief Lieberman.

The Five Cities Fire Authority will continue to serve Oceano until another entity takes over, but it’s unclear exactly when that would happen.

A spokesperson with CAL FIRE SLO says there has been no discussion about that agency taking over services in Oceano.