Consolidating Fire Services: Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano Community Services District Take a New Approach
by Michael Hubert, Steven Adams and Robert Perrault
Michael Hubert is fire chief of Arroyo Grande and the consolidated fire services program. Steven Adams is city manager of Arroyo Grande. Robert Perrault is city manager of Grover Beach. The authors would like to acknowledge the following individuals for their contributions to this article: Joe Costello, Fire Oversight Committee chair and Arroyo Grande council member; John Shoals, Fire Oversight Committee member and Grover Beach mayor; Pamela Dean, Fire Oversight Committee member and Oceano Community Services district board member; Kevin Walsh, Fire Oversight Committee member and Oceano Community Services interim general manager; Terry Fibich, former fire chief; and Doug Hamp, former interim fire chief.
Even before the economic downturn, the Cities of Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach, along with the Oceano Community Services District, were searching for ways to provide services more effectively while reducing costs. After implementing a number of individual efficiency measures, community officials realized that the most promising opportunities involved coordinating and consolidating services with neighboring jurisdictions. Because fire prevention and response services already require a high level of interdependence, they were quickly identified as prime candidates for consolidation. According to Fire Chief Mike Hubert, “What makes this process unique is that it has been implemented in incremental steps to provide the benefits of consolidation while avoiding issues of community control and identity that often threaten the success of such efforts.”
The City of Arroyo Grande covers approximately 5.45 square miles and serves a population of 17,036. The City of Grover Beach is 2.32 square miles with a population of 13,213 residents. Oceano is a neighboring 1.7 square mile community services district with a population of 8,178. Each of the jurisdictions operates one fire station. Full-time paid captains and engineers are employed, but the jurisdictions use reserves to fill firefighter positions. Until a few years ago, all three jurisdictions operated fully volunteer departments. Grover Beach Mayor John Shoals explains, “While officials recognized the benefits of cooperation, it was important to develop strategies sensitive to the long history and tradition of fire service in each of the communities.” Grover Beach had provided services with a volunteer agency for decades, and Arroyo Grande’s volunteer Fire Department dates back to 1892.
The first major step toward consolidation occurred in 2004 when the City of Arroyo Grande entered into a joint fire administration and training agreement with the City of Grover Beach. Under that agreement, Arroyo Grande provided a fire chief and Grover Beach provided a training captain. The agreement was coordinated by a Fire Oversight Committee, consisting of two city council representatives, both city managers and the fire chief. This arrangement provided the management, coordination and joint training benefits of a single department, but allowed both agencies to maintain their identity, budget control, staffing, salaries and benefits. Grover Beach City Manager Bob Perrault says, “The original agreement provided an effective first step — there was little change in the eyes of the public, and it was nonthreatening because it was structured to easily terminate if either of the parties was dissatisfied.” The agreement required renewal after the first 12 months so it could be evaluated at that time.
Working Through the Details
One of the first steps involved dropping boundaries for fire emergency response, which reduced response times for a number of areas in the two jurisdictions. Arroyo Grande Mayor Tony Ferrara recalls, “We soon discovered that when people have an emergency, most of them are much more concerned with how quickly a fire engine shows up at their home or business than which city’s name is stenciled on the side of it.”
In 2007, the agreement was modified to upgrade the captain position to a battalion chief, have both positions employed by the City of Arroyo Grande and share the costs of both positions. Developing a cost allocation plan was challenging. Using an approach that was based on equity and sensitive to each entity’s financial constraints, officials took into account the ability to pay rather than basing it strictly on population, service calls or other criteria. According to Arroyo Grande City Manager Steven Adams, “A key to the initial success was a commitment to base the decision to proceed on ensuring the arrangement was beneficial to both parties rather than requiring it to be financially equitable based on some objective measurement.”
The two cities soon expanded the agreement to include sharing reserve firefighters and apparatus. Sharing a backup fire engine made it possible to sell one fire engine, and the two cities shared the revenue. Reduced maintenance also provides ongoing savings.
Given the success of the effort, the Oceano Community Services District soon expressed an interest in participating. The agreement was amended to include Oceano on a limited basis and later expanded to provide full services. Today the three contiguous communities receive services from a single coordinated effort.
The most significant benefits include the increased feasibility of maintaining a firefighter reserve program, which is instrumental in managing the agencies’ costs. Consolidating the program has enhanced recruitment efforts and the availability of reserve staffing.
Fire Chief Hubert says, “While each of these changes has independently improved our operation, we have always viewed them as steps toward full consolidation.” Work is under way to make that a reality. The participants established a committee to develop a comprehensive budget for the new department and recommendations on other issues. The committee includes managers, fire management, fire staff, and personnel and finance staff from each agency.
Each of the governing boards approved proceeding to establish a Joint Powers Authority (JPA) and established July 1, 2010, as the target date for activation. The cost-allocation formula is based on population, service calls, assessed value, number of stations and number of full-time paid staff. During the final steps of consolidation, the Fire Oversight Committee is acting as the interim board of directors to provide policy guidance. Each of the agencies will continue to own its property and station, but the JPA will own all apparatus. Initially, to streamline the process of providing retirement and other benefits, all staff will technically be employees of the City of Arroyo Grande. However, once formed, a separate Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) contract may be pursued. A joint union has been formed, and negotiations on the first labor contract will begin shortly. A study is also under way to prepare recommendations for providing joint dispatch services.
This project’s success results from the Fire Department personnel’s level of commitment. Arroyo Grande Mayor Pro Tem Joe Costello, who has been a representative of the Fire Oversight Committee since its inception, observes how unique it is to be involved in this effort with “such unanimous support, which has required so many individuals to set aside their personal interests for the benefit of emergency service delivery to the public.”