Presidents of the firefighter unions representing the Northwest and Golder Ranch fire districts are proposing a merger that, if successful, would create one of the largest districts in the state both in terms of territory and budget.
Combined, the new district would have more than 230 employees, cover more than 200 square miles and provide fire services to nearly 160,000 customers with a beginning budget of between $23 million and $25 million.
Currently, Northwest Fire District covers 140 square miles and provides fire and ambulance services to 125,000 customers, including 1,800 businesses. The district has 151 full-time and six part-time employees as well as 16 seasonal workers on brush fire crews. Its budget for the current year is slightly more than $15 million and is projected to climb to between $16.4 million and $17.9 million for the coming fiscal year.
The Golder Ranch Fire District covers 70 square miles and serves between 32,000 and 35,000 customers with 73 full-time employees on a budget of $6.4 million, which is expected to increase to $7.2 million next fiscal year.
Capt. Dan Klement, president of Golder Ranch Firefighters Local 3832, said the idea of a merger of the two districts resulted from discussions with his Northwest Fire counterpart Matt Jenton, president of Northwest District Firefighters Local 3572, during an International Association of Firefighters convention in Las Vegas last August.
"We agreed we needed to get everyone moving in the same direction, to make sure it's the right thing to do for residents and the right thing for firefighters," Klement said.
The two union leaders see a merger and the creation of a larger fire district as a means of eliminating program duplications, sharing buildings, buying in bulk items a single district might not be able to afford, improving firefighter benefits and opportunities for advancement while at the same time providing residents with more services for the same dollar or the same level of services for less.
"We definitely wouldn't do this, though, if there were any layoffs, especially as union representatives, but there are opportunities for combining a lot of administrative positions," Klement said.
Among the challenges to a merger is the difference in the two districts' tax rates. The Golder Ranch tax rate is $1.99 per $100 assessed valuation and Northwest Fire District's tax rate is $2.36 per $100 assessed valuation.
"That's a big issue and one we're concerned about," Klement said. "We don't really have the answers yet as to how we're going to handle things like that. But we want it to be a winning thing for the public.
"It's one of the reasons we're sitting down and discussing it," Klement said. " We have to find a way to overcome that obstacle by coming to some middle ground on the tax rate and showing we're providing enhanced services to Golder Ranch residents.
"I'm really surprised at how this has taken off since Matt and I had our talks in Las Vegas thinking it was our obligation to study this," Klement said. "It went from putting together the group to study this two months ago and as soon as the group got together the fire chiefs were asking us about it and the public was calling."
Klement estimated it would be a minimum of two years before the issue is put to voters. "Already the fire chiefs are talking about a study session with their boards, but I'm one of those guys who is saying, 'Hey, let's slow things down.' I hope we can do that in the next two or three months,” he said.
"We're trying to get an idea from the departments and employees whether it's worth pursuing," Jenton said. "In my view, the problem is there are so many pockets of unprotected fire service in the Northwest area. People have the ability to contract with Rural/Metro for fire protection on a subscription basis, but there is no mandate, there are no standards, no requirements, no consistencies of service anywhere in the county outside the fire districts.
"In Pima County, people don't get the same level of fire protection from a code standpoint, from an enforcement standpoint, compared to what's happening in our district," Jenton said. "We're talking about a huge population on the Northwest side and I feel everyone is entitled to the same level of service, based on what the needs of the people are, not just on what they can afford."
Rural/Metro spokesperson Chief George Good said his company has no opinion about the proposed merger, adding, "That's for the residents of those districts to decide … the area we provide service to is the same whether they merge or not."
As for comments about different fire codes throughout the county, Good said there are inconsistencies throughout the county, even within some fire districts.
He said the county code is the 1988 Uniform Fire Code, but Northwest and Golder Ranch use the 1997 UFC. However, Oro Valley recently adopted the 2000 International Fire Code and requires all fire providers in the town to use it. He said both Golder Ranch and Rural/Metro follow the 2000 IFC in Oro Valley and different codes outside Oro Valley.
Creating one large district won't change that, Good said.
About seven years ago when the Flowing Wells Fire District merged with Northwest, the smaller district had a tax rate of $1.99 per $100 assessed valuation and Northwest was at about $1.62 per $100 assessed valuation, Jenton said.
After the merger, the tax rate went to about $1.70 per assessed valuation, resulting in a savings for the Flowing Wells customers for awhile, but since then the level of overall protection has increased with more units on the road, more firefighters available and that's naturally helped increase the tax rate to its current level, he said.
"But as far as personnel are concerned, the bigger the organization, the more employees, the better your chances are of getting less expensive health insurance and dental insurance through the cost sharing benefits of a larger group," Jenton said.
In terms of capital purchases, when Flowing Wells was a two-fire-station organization, purchasing a fire engine was a big deal, a lot of money out of a small budget, he said.
By combining the budgets of Northwest and Golder, the district wouldn't be limited to just buying a single fire engine when it might need three or four to meet fire protection needs and by purchasing more than one, chances of getting a better price are increased, he said.
A merger also would free up personnel where services are duplicated so there would be more firefighters in the field, some of whom could be assigned to improve Golder Ranch area staffing at least temporarily without a major budget impact, he said.
The proposal would have to be approved by the governing boards of both districts and then by voters.
"If the benefits well outweigh the disadvantages, would we support it? Certainly," said Golder Ranch Fire Chief John Fink, "and then would we move forward and support it to our boards? Yes, we would, but that hasn't happened yet." Fink said he was speaking for Northwest Fire Chief Jeff Piechura as well, based on conversations the two have had.
Fink acknowledged the potential positives of a merger listed by the firefighters but noted bigger doesn't always necessarily mean better.
"If you look at the school districts and their health insurance, I don't think you'll find that bigger is necessarily cheaper," as an example, he said.
At a meeting of union members recently, Fink told the firefighters that the proposal had to be driven by them, especially since he and Piechura are deeply involved in their own budget processes right now and have no time to put into the effort. "That's their baby," Fink said.
"From my aspect, from the district's aspect, we have not taken any position," Fink said. "We haven't even had time to look at the possibilities. I'm sure once we get into the process I'm going to have a lot of questions, but the firefighters have to bring it forward first."
Once that happens, there will be independent audits of each department. Debt structure would be among the areas addressed, as well as how differences in the administrative policies of the two agencies would be affected and how Golder Ranch residents would be represented on the newly created board.
"You'd want to go into this with your eyes open and look at every possibility and every realm of the entire merger and what that would present," Fink said.
Critics of a merger allege Golder Ranch residents would be adversely affected by having the increased valuations brought into the district support the rapid growth in Marana where the population is expected to increase from more than 15,000 currently to more than 70,000 by 2025. They're also concerned about playing second fiddle to Marana in board representation and capital improvement allocations and about the potential for dramatic increases in their tax levy.