September 28, 2005 - Golder Ranch Fire District has come a long way since 1977, when it was responsible for responding to calls from residents living within four square miles of Catalina.

As of last month, the district had signed off on annexations that brought the total area covered by Golder Ranch to 195 square miles - more than doubling its size from earlier this year - and it's not stopping there.

The district, still headquartered in Catalina, has plans to keep growing, and, if it gets what it wants, it will become the sole fire provider in Oro Valley.

Golder Ranch Chief John Fink said that Golder Ranch Fire District and Rural/Metro Fire Department are still in negotiations on a public-private partnership agreement, and hope to reach a deal within the next 30 days.

While he would not comment on the specifics of the negotiations, he has said in earlier interviews that it would "make sense" to have one fire provider serving the whole town and one ambulance service provider for the whole town.

If an agreement is reached, it will likely take years to convert Rural/Metro subscribers to Golder Ranch service. Rural/Metro customers, who pay a subscription to have service, would still need to be annexed into the Golder Ranch district, but, if an agreement is in place, Golder Ranch would be annexing with the support of Rural/Metro.

But even without an agreement in place, Golder Ranch continues to annex into Oro Valley and also is growing its customer base in southern Pinal County, where large housing communities are being planned for the coming years.

Although the area the department covers has become dramatically bigger over the past few months, the actual number of people served has not changed by much. However, thousands more people will be served by the department by the end of the decade, and Golder Ranch is taking steps to be prepared for those people.

"In four years, we could double in size, really," said Fink. "It's a lot of growth to keep up with."

In the past three months, Golder Ranch has signed up to provide service to at least 14,500 more homes than it covered before when it annexed two large developments planned for construction in Pinal County, the south village of the Willow Springs development and the SaddleBrooke Ranch development, being built by Robson Communities development. The department also has annexed two substantial areas of land owned by the state this year. In each case, Golder Ranch was approached by a single owner of the land asking to be annexed. Fink said this is often the case, particularly with home developments being built, so potential home buyers know what kind of emergency services are in place before making a purchase.

While there are no residents expected in either housing development until the summer of 2007, Fink said that, in the case of both, land has been donated so each new community will have two Golder Ranch fire stations.

Growth of the district's service area means the department will need more staff, equipment and facilities, Fink said.

The Golder Ranch Fire District governing board plans to hold a strategic planning meeting Nov. 8 to specifically discuss growth issues that the department is facing.

Governing Board Chair Vicki Cox Golder said that now that the district is one of the biggest in the state, geographically, planning for the future is more important than ever.

"We will be planning for the next two to three years, which we always do. But we will be looking even further into the future on some things," she said. "For example, engines are not cheap. We need proper budgeting practices to make sure we can get what we need."

Cox Golder said she thinks the district is fortunate to have a staff and fire chief who understand budgeting and planning. She has been involved in the district for 17 years and said she remembers a time when it had to "scrimp and save" and buy equipment used or rejected from other departments. With the growth, and with the passing of the bond issue, she said the district is now in a better place for planning.

When Fink took over as chief in 1995, there were 33 staff members. There are now 96 and plans to become even bigger.

Golder Ranch just hired nine additional firefighters and is planning to fill four new administration positions: a receptionist, two secretaries, and a human resources specialist.

"I need these people now, but there isn't any space," Fink said. But there will be space soon.

Knowing it was facing this explosive growth in the Northwest and southern Pinal county, the district called its first bond election in its history.

In 2003, the district spent $596,000 out of its general budget for nine acres of vacant land on Golder Ranch Road east of Twin Lakes in Catalina, where it plans to build new headquarters.

Using money from the $13.8 million bond passed by voters in 2004, the fire district has begun construction on a new administration complex and fire station in Catalina. Fink said he hopes the station will be completed by April of next year.

"I always said Golder Ranch Fire should be on Golder Ranch Road," Fink said.

The current fire facilities, on Hawser Road, were built nearly three decades ago. Fink said he is not sure yet whether the district will immediately sell the existing facilities or find an alternate use for them.

The bond money also will be used to build a fire station in the SaddleBrooke Preserve development and three additional stations to be named at a later date and to buy another ladder truck for the department's use.

In addition to the future stations as part of the bond program, the department is currently planning a new station in Oro Valley at Lambert Lane and La Cañada Drive, which has been met with some opposition from residents.

The Oro Valley Town Council recently voted in favor of granting a grading exception, despite a recommendation by its Development Review Board to deny the exception, which allows for the razing of hills on the site, in order for the department to move forward with its plans.

Fink said the district still needs to be a granted a permit to build the station as well as have a development plan OK'd.

The department also is looking farther south into Oro Valley for land on which to build fire stations.

For years, Tangerine Road in Oro Valley has been known as the dividing line between the area that Golder Ranch served to the north of that line and the area that Rural/Metro served to the south.

"That's what people have always said, but it's really not accurate anymore," Fink said, pointing out that in the past few years his district has annexed communities south of Tangerine Road, including Verde Ranch, Copper Creek, Monterra Ridge, Tangerine Hills, the post office on La Cañada Drive and Oro Valley Town Hall.

Fink said the plan is to continue to annex those communities that show interest in joining Golder Ranch Fire District, as long as they have a station that is close enough to meet the town's six- and eight-minute requirements for response time to a given scene. How service should be provided in Oro Valley has been debated for nearly a decade among various factions within the town, one wishing to leave things as they are, one wishing to have Golder Ranch as the sole provider of service, and still another suggesting the town form its own fire department.

In July, the council approved the annexation of the town hall into the Golder Ranch district, after years of free service from Rural/Metro. The initiative was led by council members Conny Culver and Helen Dankwerth, who both support the district being the sole fire provider for the town.

During the council election campaign early last year, four of the five new council members publicly supported Golder Ranch as their preferred fire service provider in the town. Only Kenneth "K.C." Carter said he would like to give both providers a chance to meet town performance standards before making any decisions about whether an entity should be the sole service provider.

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