The Northwest Fire and Rescue District's plan for improving and rearranging its fire stations and facilities could affect what homeowners pay for insurance, shell out in taxes and the emergency response times critical to the safety of more than 125,000 Marana and Northwest side residents.
Critics reviewing the plan complain that Northwest Fire is allocating the bulk of its improvements and new fire stations to Marana, which contains less than an eighth of the district's population.
Despite the significant implications of the plan being devised to allocate the district's limited resources, only Marana's town manager and one NWFD resident addressed Northwest's fire board on the topic at its monthly meeting Nov. 26.
As part of its short-term strategic planning process, the board directed NWFD Chief Jeff Piechura to explore building a new fire station in the rural area slated to become Marana's new "downtown," consider consolidating two existing stations, look at building a new support services center and provide the board with possible locations for centralizing its administrative buildings.
A long-range aspect of the planning process envisions five future fire stations. The facilities would be built at Marana-Northwest Regional Airport, Twin Peaks Road and Interstate 10, Tangerine Road and I-10, and Ina Road and I-10 - all of which are in Marana - and Tangerine and Thornydale Road on the boundary between Marana and unincorporated Pima County.
The planning process serves to update the district's last plan drafted in 1999-2000, and provides a four-to-five-year forecast, Piechura said.
Piechura also provided an overview of the district's existing eight fire stations and two administrative locations, and the problems and limitations of the facilities.
The plan, which leans toward building new facilities in Marana, drew praise and pledges of support from Marana Town Manager Mike Hein.
Resident Jim Schuh said the plan unfairly benefits the 16,000 residents of Marana at the expense of the remaining 109,000 residents served in the 125-square mile district, and he questioned how Northwest Fire planned to pay for the expansion.
In an interview after the meeting Piechura dismissed complaints that Northwest Fire was distributing its resources toward Marana to the detriment of the rest of the district.
"I would say those who would cast those aspersions aren't looking at the complete picture of what we do today at other station sites," Piechura said, noting that Station 35 on West Trails End Road and Station 32 on West Camino del Cerro in Pima County serve "between 5,000 and 15,000 people each."
Currently, three of the eight stations are located in Marana. The district and town entered into a intergovernmental agreement in 1998 that made NWFD the town's sole fire service provider.
Earlier this year, the district moved its administrative headquarters to a leased building at 5225 W. Massingale in Marana from the Flowing Wells area. A proposal in the planning process considers moving it again to where Marana plans to build its new municipal complex and downtown gateway between Barnett Road and the Marana exit of I-10. Marana would foot the cost of construction of the headquarters and a new fire station to be reimbursed by NWFD taxpayers.
The district has also proposed spending $897,000 to build a new maintenance facility on land owned by Marana at the town's maintenance facility at 5100 W. Ina Road and adjacent properties NWFD would purchase.
Piechura said he has been in discussions with Marana Police Chief David R. Smith to build a multiagency training center in the town. Marana would acquire the land and construct the site and NWFD district and "other agencies, possibly the town of Oro Valley" and other fire districts would contribute to associated costs.
The town and fire district have already embarked on a series of joint projects ranging from GIS and communication sharing agreements to a program that would allow the fire district to collect construction and plan review fees through the town.
In addition, Marana and NWFD both employ the private sector law firm of Hochuli and Benevidez as their respective town attorney and fire district counsel, despite the many contractual agreements that exist between the town and district.
The proposal to cover Marana's cost for building the district's new administrative headquarters and fire station near the town's municipal center involves the Marana Municipal Property Corporation, a nonprofit organization set up by Marana to sell bonds for town construction projects. If used to build the NWFD facilities, the bond sale by the municipal property corporation would not require voter approval from either jurisdiction.
"The district residents in the entire Northwest area are put in debt bondage by this and have no say in it," Schuh said after the meeting. "Marana gets a fire station and control in the district and Piechura continues to build his empire. It's just outrageous."
Piechura noted in his memo to the board that new fire stations could cost as much as $1.3 million to $1.8 million each to build, not including the cost of land acquisition, and said the long-range planning process was still in the discussion phase.
The memo from Piechura put priority on building stations in Marana -- at the airport by 2006; at Twin Peaks and I-10 in 2007; and at Tangerine and I-10 by 2010 -- because of growth projections for the area.
Options presented to the board for paying for the facilities included partnering with Marana to develop a facilities district to finance the airport and Tangerine Road stations while building the station at Twin Peaks using the fire district's own funds; holding a bond election in the Northwest Fire District to pay for the three facilities; and a "pay as you go" system using the district's annual tax revenues.
The facilities district would rely on funds from developers as they construct infrastructure, new homes and businesses in the area.
For the short-term planning, the board, with member Jane Madden abstaining, voted 4-0 to begin planning with Marana the new station at the town center to replace the existing Station 36 at Sanders and Grier roads.
The old station is on land leased by Marana behind the Marana Municipal Court.
The board also voted 5-0 to direct Piechura to develop plans for centralizing the district's administrative and training facilities at one location, and instructed him to return next month with three locations to be considered by the board.
The board voted 5-0 to look at consolidating station 32, at West Camino del Cerro west of Silverbell Road, and station 35, at West Trails End Road.
Both are small stations with limited facilities that serve the rural Tucson Mountains area south of River Road and east of I-10.
The district is still exploring which of the two will be closed, and may consider closing both and building a new facility in the area of Sweetwater and Silverbell roads, according to a report forwarded to the board.
The meeting was the last for outgoing boardmember Jane Madden. Madden has been a boardmember for more than eight years and has been a frequent critic of the district's spending and of Piechura.
She will be replaced on the board by Vince Baker who received the most write-in votes in the Nov. 5 election. Boardmember Lee Mellor, who was appointed to the board last year, was also elected Nov. 5.
EXISTING NWFD FACILITIES
As part of Northwest Fire and Rescue District's planning process, Fire Chief Jeff Piechura gave the district's governing board a status report on the eight stations currently serving the district:
Station 30 1520 W. Orange Grove Road
The 1970s four bedroom home was converted into a fire station in 1984. It currently houses a four-person engine company, a two-person rescue company and a two-member ambulance crew. The station held NWFD's administrative service offices until they were relocated to a station on La Cholla in 1996 and relocated again to Marana earlier this year. The station is in need of a "major remodel" to include drive-through bays, sleeping quarter improvements, diesel exhaust vents and a new floor.
Station 314701 N. La Cholla Boulevard
Construct-ed by the Flowing Wells Fire District in 1996, the station was considered state of the art at the time it was taken over by NWFD. It currently houses a four-person ladder company, two-member rescue unit, a two-person ambulance crew and an engine that serves as a ladder tender. The facility, described as being in "good shape," has three bays and was designed to be expanded to add an additional bay if needed. Expansion of the the 2.5 acre parcel is limited, however, by significant archaeological sites located throughout the property. An annex that previously held the district's main administrative offices now houses the district's Wildland Fire Program and other small offices.
West Camino del Cerro and North Silverbell Road
The station was converted from a 1970s three bedroom house with the construction in 1984 of three truck bays. The facility is described as being at maximum capacity with a three-person crew manning the available engine, water tender and a technical rescue vehicle. The district is looking at consolidating it with Station 35, a move that area residents objected to when it was considered in 1995.
West Quasar Street near Magee and Thornydale roads.
Built in 1992, the small two-bay station houses a three-person hazardous materials company, a temporary two-person rescue company and a two-person ambulance crew. The station is located in the Heritage Hills Fire District and is serviced by a Rural/Metro Corp. fire station located less than a half mile away. The NWFD is currently expanding the living quarters to increase the staffing at the station.
Station 34 8165 N. Wade Road
The Continental Ranch-area station also houses the district's training facilities. Constructed in 1990, the station protected about 1,000 homes and now serves more than 6,000 in the still rapidly growing area. The four-person crew at the two-bay station operates an engine company, water tender and a brush fire truck. Remodeling is planned in 2005 to add a rescue company and another bay in 2006. The training facilities are deemed "inadequate" and zoning prevents the construction of a training tower and other needed facilities. The district is in negotiations with Marana to build a new training campus.
Station 35 West Trails End Road
The small station has shared facilities with the State of Arizona Correctional Training Academy, which owns the property. The district requested "temporary" rent-free space there in 1991. The three-member engine company lives in converted office space and the site is the most distant of any of NWFD's stations. It provides service to the district's extreme southern portion. The engine is parked outside the building. The fire board is considering closing or consolidating the station with Station 32, or building a new station in the area of Silverbell and Sweetwater roads.
Station 36 Sanders and Grier roads
Located behind the former saloon that now houses the Marana Municipal Court, the station is composed of a single wide modular home for its three staff members and a vehicle cover for the single engine and water tender. The site is provided by the town of Marana and NWFD pays the utility costs. The district is considering a proposal by the town to build a new station near Marana's planned municipal complex on Lon Adams Road.
Station 37 Dove Mountain
Built in 1998 to serve the booming Heritage High-lands and Dove Mountain developments, the station is designed to house six personnel but currently has only a three-person engine company. The district plans to add a two-person rescue company in 2008.