The Northwest Fire/Rescue District governing board voted 4-1 May 28 to approve the district's budget cap at just over $15 million and to lower the district's property tax rate by three cents.

The cap is nearly $2 million higher than last fiscal year, but NWFD was still able to lower the tax rate thanks to a 9.7 percent increase in property values, according to the Pima County Assessor's Office.

Major proposed expenditures for the 2002-2003 fiscal year include the second of three payments toward the district's capital debt, a 3 percent cost of living adjustment for all employees and the construction of a new maintenance facility (see story page 5).

Board Member Jane Madden cast the lone dissenting vote, as is typical when the board is voting on financial matters in the district, because she said the tax rate was not lowered enough.

The tax rate was raised by 23 cents to $2.4256 per $100 of assessed value last year and 19 cents the year before. This year's rate, which was also approved at the May 28 meeting, is $2.3883 per $100 of assessed value and is expected to generate about $12 million in revenues for the district.

"I gave my word two years ago that the 19 cents would be taken off (the tax rate) and I had to vote no," Madden said.

The tax rate was raised 19 cents two years ago in order to pay off capital debt incurred by the fire district. It was raised an additional 23 cents last year to cover the cost of more capital improvement projects.

Madden has frequently been critical of the district's administration and Fire Chief Jeff Piechura, accusing him of hiding funds in the budget and spending too much money.

"I know that I am critical, but having been an elected official in the past, I can see how bad he really is," she said.

Board Chairman Patrick Quinn said he felt the board was taking a step in the right direction with the lower tax rate considering the expenses the district will have in the coming year.

"This is acceptable when you keep having the expenses that we have, like paying off the debt and increasing the staffing level," he said.

Piechura agreed, and said dropping the tax rate by 19 cents is unrealistic at this point.

"It costs money to run a fire department," Piechura said. "If you expect a 55 cent fire department on your tax rate and still hope to provide four person engine companies, paramedic services, hazardous materials, wildland, search and water rescue and fix the trucks, keep the stations running and pay the salaries, you have to expect to pay some premium dollars for that."

Piechura said the alternative to a full-service fire department would not meet the expectation of district residents even though tax rates would be lower.

"If you want a volunteer fire department where it takes them anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to get to your house, you pay less," he said. "The customer expectation in Northwest Fire District is they dial 911, and by the time they hang up, they expect someone at their front door."

Madden said after the board's last meeting April 29 that other board members and the public would hear her "spiel" about what she believed to be wrong with the budget, but for the most part, Madden remain-ed silent throughout the public hearing preceding the vote.

"I had raised concerns all along the way," Madden said.

Madden said she was also concerned about the 3 percent cost of living increase for employees. She said she felt the increase would only widen the salary gap between employee groups.

For example, a new firefighter has a starting salary of about $21,000 per year, according to documents provided by NWFD. The 3 percent increase would add about $600 to their salary.

The fire chief, however, has a starting salary of about $87,000, according to those same documents. A 3 percent increase would add more than $2,000 onto his or her salary.

"The poor little guys on the bottom are getting nothing and the cost of living is the same for everyone, from the people on the top to the people on the bottom," Madden said.

Jim Schuh, a frequent critic of the district and regular attendee of board meetings, was the only member of the general public to attend the meeting, with the rest of the attendees being from NWFD or the media.

Schuh shared Madden's concerns about the cost of living increase and suggested that the board instead take 3 percent of the entire salary budget and then make even distributions to all employees.

Quinn said that idea would not be productive to employee morale.

"What happens then is wage compression," Quinn said. "Pretty soon, you could have firefighters making more than captains. Then the mentality could be 'I make more than you do so why should I listen to what you have to say?' And we wouldn't have people striving to do their best to get promoted if the promotion means less pay."

Matt Janton, president of NWFD's firefighter's union, said he has not presented the budget to employees, so he has been unable to get any feedback about the raise. He declined to comment further.

In other district news, Piechura was evaluated by the board during executive session at its May 28 meeting. Piechura will be making more than $95,000 next year, a $5,000 increase from last year due to a cost of living adjustment and compensation that was deferred from last year.

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