Feb. 22, 2006 - Golder Ranch Fire District will become the fire service provider for all of Oro Valley within the next five to seven years due to a landmark agreement signed last week by the district and Rural/Metro Fire Department.

The agreement, which will be completed in three phases, will also make Rural/Metro subsidiary Southwest Ambulance responsible for all ambulance transportation in Oro Valley.

The agreement is the culmination of two years of negotiations between the two agencies and more than a decade of controversy over fire service in Oro Valley.

Currently, Golder Ranch provides fire service for roughly the northern half of Oro Valley, as well as communities to the north and west of the town limits. Many Oro Valley residents in areas south and west of the Golder Ranch Fire District subscribe for fire service with Rural/Metro, a private company.

The two fire service providers are funded through different means. Rural/Metro subscribers pay a yearly fee based on the square footage of their homes. Residents of the Golder Ranch Fire District pay a secondary property tax for fire service at a current rate of $2.11 per $100 of assessed value of their home, with assessed value being a figure equal to 10 percent of the home's cash value. The maximum rate a fire district can charge under Arizona law is $3 per $100 of assessed value.

Phases One and Two of the conversion to Golder Ranch fire service begin April 1. These phases include large areas south and west of the current district limits. Beginning on April 1, Golder Ranch will respond to all fire emergencies within Phase One and Two areas. Rural/Metro subscribers within these areas who renew their subscriptions after April 1 will pay fees to Rural/Metro at a rate equal to the Golder Ranch property tax rate up until a time when they are officially annexed into the Golder Ranch Fire District, said Josh Weiss, public information officer for Southwest Ambulance.

For many current Rural/Metro customers, the Golder Ranch model will result in a substantial increase in their yearly payment for fire service.

Phase Three of the integration is slated to begin on April 1, 2010, and will include the southernmost region of Oro Valley. With the beginning of Phase Three, Golder Ranch will be the fire service provider for all of Oro Valley, the agreement said.

Southwest Ambulance will be responsible for all non-emergency transports in Oro Valley beginning on April 1, and will become the 9-1-1 emergency ambulance transporter for all of Oro Valley sometime in October.

Phase One could last as long as 18 months, Phase Two as long as four years and Phase Three as long as three years. Golder Ranch intends to officially annex all areas within each phase during these time periods through petition signatures signed by residents and eventually cover all remaining areas of Oro Valley within the next five to seven years.

For an annexation to be approved under Arizona law, 50 percent of residents within the annexation area must sign an annexation petition with Golder Ranch.

Golder Ranch does not anticipate any problem getting these areas annexed into their fire district, said John Sullivan, public information officer for Golder Ranch.

"Historically, we've never had an annexation that hasn't been successful. More than 50 percent of people need to support it, and we have had that in past years. We feel very confident that support will be there, especially when they see how this partnership benefits the community and the individual," Sullivan said.

Rural/Metro customers will be responsible for maintaining their subscriptions with Rural/Metro during these phases up until annexation, even though they will be paying Golder Ranch rates and Golder Ranch trucks and personnel will answer their fire emergencies.

Final negotiations between Golder Ranch and Rural/Metro were held on Feb. 16, and the final draft of the agreement signed by the Rural/Metro Corporation was unanimously approved by the Golder Ranch Governing Board at a Feb.17 board meeting.

"We've worked on this for two years. When it was first suggested, there was a lot of resistance," said Vicki Cox-Golder, chairwoman of the Golder Ranch Governing Board. "The bottom line is, we're doing this for the benefit of our customers in Oro Valley."

Les Caid, fire chief for Rural/Metro, said having two fire service providers in Oro Valley was quickly becoming extraneous.

"Fire service costs money and the standards are set across the town, and it really didn't work well to have two fire services butting heads against each other to try to build an infrastructure in Oro Valley," Caid said. "This agreement is going to provide a seamless transition and leave Oro Valley with a single fire service provider, which is the direction that we saw it going."

One of the first requirements of the agreement is for Rural/Metro to move out of its station 77 at 700 E. Palisades Road in central Oro Valley before April 1. If Golder Ranch does not have its new station at Lambert Lane and La Cañada Drive up and running by April 1, then Golder Ranch will temporarily post an engine and a four-person firefighting crew at station 77 and pay Rural/Metro rent until the new station is open.

"This allows us time to get the parts and pieces in place to provide a seamless transition," Caid said.

Also assisting in the transition is a mutual aid agreement signed by Rural/Metro and Golder Ranch where the closest station will provide emergency service without regard to district boundaries, phases, or service subscriptions.

"If (Golder Ranch) needs assistance within our district, Rural/Metro is committed to providing resources. The mutual aid is a process where the closest, most appropriate provider is there to provide service," Sullivan said.

Caid agreed that the mutual aid agreement will benefit everyone in the area and will put away the logistical difficulties the two providers have had in covering adjacent areas.

"We are in the process of building a fire station in North Ranch/Linda Vista Fire District, and that will take some time. This agreement allows us work the mutual aid and help each other in case there is a fire or emergency medical call that is beyond the capabilities of either of our response agencies," Caid said.

In exchange for Golder Ranch responding to emergency calls from Rural/Metro subscribers up until annexation, Rural/Metro will pay Golder Ranch $250,000 annually, and $225,000 for this shorter first year, the agreement said.

"What we are paying for, we'll be working with Golder Ranch fire and responding to all emergencies, fire and EMS, throughout Oro Valley. Some of the areas Golder Ranch will be responding to will have previously been served by Rural/Metro, and that compensation is for those responses," Caid said.

Similarly, Golder Ranch will pay $50,000 a year to Rural/Metro for ambulance service within the district, the agreement said.

"This payment to Southwest Ambulance and Rural/Metro is for when they respond to a medical emergency within the fire district, so that those people (without medical insurance that fully covers ambulance transport) are covered and won't be responsible for paying a residual cost," Sullivan said.

While both agencies touted the mutual benefit of the deal and each said it was good for Oro Valley, some Rural/Metro customers expressed concern about the prospect of having to pay more for fire service.

"I suspect that I'll be paying a lot more for fire service. I'm retired and on a fixed income like a lot of people, and (the fee increase) isn't a pleasant thing to hear but there isn't much I can do about it," said Jim Kriegh, Oro Valley resident and town historian. "I'm not going to be really happy about paying for the service and bond issues outside the town of Oro Valley."

Oro Valley resident and Rural/Metro subscriber Dick Epperson said that Golder Ranch service isn't worth the fee increase.

"Compared to Rural/Metro, (Golder Ranch) does not stack up very well cost-wise. With a house in the lower reaches, they're about the same. But as a house becomes more and more expensive, you notice more of a discrepancy in value between Golder Ranch and Rural/Metro," Epperson said. "There are other things to be concerned about other than your taxes, but it's hard to avoid when you pay so much for fire protection."

Oro Valley councilwoman Conny Culver said service with Golder Ranch costs her less than Rural/Metro.

"For my home, I got my bill for Rural/Metro and I picked up the phone for Golder Ranch, and there was virtually no difference in the fee. Actually, bottom line, Golder Ranch cost me less because those fees are tax deductible. I haven't seen evidence that fees will double or triple like some people fear will happen," Culver said.

Culver said that although Golder Ranch and Rural/Metro both have excellent staffs, Golder Ranch is the only one that has been able to meet town standards for fire service.

"What the town did was to institute the National Fire Protection Association standard for response time and required personnel on emergency apparatus. All we did was to bring all of Oro Valley up to a national standard for things such as having four men on a fire truck, and we're still waiting for Rural/Metro to fully meet that, but Golder Ranch has," Culver said.

Nancy Young Wright, a candidate for Oro Valley mayor, said she believes the town council put these standards in place to provide Golder Ranch with the leverage it needed to take over fire service in Oro Valley.

"It seems that since the town set up standards such as a four-minute response time, which I understand is very difficult to make, and then set up conditions that were deliberately intended for Rural/Metro not to be able to make, then they were showing favoritism and had an outcome in mind," Young Wright said. "Rural/Metro decided there wasn't much of a future for them in Oro Valley"

Young Wright added: "A number of the incumbents have taken contributions from Golder Ranch."

Weiss said the town standards for fire service were difficult for Rural/Metro to meet.

"In order to make the upgrades that would have provided the standards that the town wanted, it would have been a big burden on the subscriber system, even more than a fire district or municipal fire department. I know it was enough that it was worth sitting down and seeing if there was a way we could all partner together," Weiss said.

Oro Valley town councilman Terry Parish said that transitioning to a government-controlled fire service provider is a natural part of Oro Valley's growth, particularly when a fire district of Golder Ranch's service quality is available.

"Rural/Metro is a corporation, and its primary responsibility is to make money for its shareholders. It should be government entities that provide fire service in a municipality the size of Oro Valley. When the town was less developed, we needed a company like Rural/Metro to provide fire service, but those days are gone," Parish said.

Parish added that a good indicator of why Golder Ranch is wanted for the town is that it is rated in the top three percent of all fire districts.

"I've heard some people grumble that Rural/Metro is more expensive for them, and for some people Golder Ranch and its secondary property tax is more expensive for them. For all of us, money is very important until your life is on the line," Parish said.

Oro Valley Mayor Paul Loomis said he hopes the agreement will put an end to the controversy over fire service in Oro Valley.

"There has always been a controversy over fire service in Oro Valley. That controversy seems to rear its ugly head every election, and seems to go away after every election," Loomis said. "Our studies have shown that Oro Valley is best served by a single service provider."

In 2003, an advisory board of town officials and consultants suggested that Oro Valley create a town fire department. In light of the current agreement, Loomis said creating an Oro Valley Fire Department would require a town property tax and therefore it's an unlikely option for the near future.

"Providing fire protection is not cheap, and how you spread that cost out is significant," Loomis said. "The council decided a couple of years ago that wasn't one of the paths they wanted to pursue."

Dan Klement, president of North Tucson Fire Fighters, a union of Golder Ranch firefighters, said he was assured that no one on either side would lose their job due to this agreement. Yet he also said he wasn't allowed to be part of the negotiation process.

"We originally tried to get involved in the process and the CEO of Rural/Metro ejected me from the meeting because he wanted no labor representation at all there," Klement said. "I walked out of the meeting and we weren't part of the process, which is unusual because our fire district usually makes us part of the process."

Weiss said Rural/Metro firefighters displaced by the agreement will be transferred to new stations in the nearby La Cañada and North Ranch/Linda Vista Fire Districts, both of which contract with Rural/Metro, or to other parts of Pima County.

"All the people and equipment are going to be used in other areas of the Rural/Metro fire service area. It's going to enhance and make Rural/Metro a stronger fire department," Weiss said.

Before the agreement is official, the Arizona Department of Health Services must approve the takeover of ambulance service in Oro Valley by Southwest Ambulance. Weiss does not expect this to be a difficult process.

"I think that when we all walk in together as a unified voice, it will clearly make the process a lot easier than it would have been otherwise," Weiss said.

Sullivan said the two-year negotiation process has paid off nicely with the new agreement between Golder Ranch and Rural/Metro.

"It seems like a long process, but I feel like the partnership we've forged was worth all the hours and brainpower that were put into it over the years," Sullivan said.

With this agreement, Golder Ranch has indeed come into a new era of expansion. In addition to its new station at Lambert and La Cañada, Golder Ranch is planning to build new stations at Linda Vista and Oracle, SaddleBrooke, and in Oracle Junction, said Golder Ranch Battalion Chief William Pernett.

"Next year we're looking at hiring 20 to 25 firefighters. Realistically, we're looking to double our size within the next four years from four stations to eight or nine stations."

Greg Holt is a Staff Writer covering Oro Valley and the Amphitheater School District. You can reach him at 797-4384, ext. 116, or by email at gholt@explorernews.com.

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