Fire districts have little room to grow - Tucson Local Media: Import

Fire districts have little room to grow

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Posted: Tuesday, June 20, 2006 11:00 pm

June 21, 2006 - Fire Districts in the Northwest are entering a new era of expansion. As special taxing districts paid for through by secondary property tax, swallowing up new territory means a larger tax base from which to pay for new fire stations, firefighters, and fire engines, all of which lead to better service for their taxpayers.

As they grow, there is increasingly less land in the Northwest not already claimed, and despite their slow and cumbersome annexation process, the race is on to gobble up enough real estate to fund both a fire district's needs and its ambitions.

Golder Ranch Fire District recently achieved a major land acquisition when it took control of fire service in Oro Valley while ceding ambulance service to Southwest Ambulance, a subsidiary of Rural/Metro Fire Department, in an agreement that took two years to negotiate. Rural/Metro, a private subscription-based fire service provider, will phase out its service of southern Oro Valley over the next five to seven years, but phased-out Rural/Metro subscribers will pay Golder Ranch prices and be serviced by Golder Ranch fire engines until they sign a petition to be annexed into the Golder Ranch district.

Perhaps more than any other fire district in the Northwest, La Cañada Fire District is feeling the pressure to expand before it's too late. Wedged between the rapidly advancing Golder Ranch Fire District and Northwest Fire District, the largest in Arizona, the tiny but staunchly independent district is not entirely unlike Switzerland, which is similarly landlocked between larger powers Germany, France, and Italy.

However, unlike Switzerland, La Cañada still has room to grow, and it's making its move.

The La Cañada Fire District occupies about 1.5 square miles around La Cañada Road north of Ina Road. If its current plans are successful, the district will triple in size to 4.5 square miles by December. The district intends to annex land north to Overton Road, east across Oracle Road, and west to Shannon Road.

"If we annex these areas, we'll be large enough to stand on our own," said Michael Treece, chairman of the La Cañada Fire District governing board. "This protects our territory and makes us a bigger player."

To annex a particular area, that area must share a border with the fire district and must not be part of another fire district. Final approval of the annexation is left to the area's landowners, of which more than 50 percent must sign a petition approving the annexation.

Treece said the goal of his district is to become self-sufficient. Unlike Golder Ranch and Northwest, La Cañada contracts with Rural/Metro to provide fire service for its district. Consequently, Rural/Metro's agreement with Golder Ranch has left his district very concerned that Rural/Metro is becoming a more unstable presence in the Northwest, either because it is being pushed out of the area by fire districts, or because it is becoming more focused on expanding its ambulance service as a corporation, he said.

"From our point of view, if they gave up Oro Valley, they might give us up, too. That would force us to go with Northwest or Golder Ranch," Treece said. "Who knows what Rural/Metro is going to do, because it's a corporate decision for them."

Chris Pendleton, assistant fire chief for Rural/Metro, said his department will continue to serve La Cañada and many other Northwest customers well into the future.

"What they are worried about is that something will happen to Rural/Metro in the long term, but there's no chance we'll leave the area. We've been serving this area since 1964, and we're not going anywhere," Pendleton said.

Still, Treece said his district has also been more directly affected by the deal between Golder Ranch and Rural/Metro. In particular, he said the switchover of a station at the intersection of First Avenue and Palisades Road in Oro Valley from a Rural/Metro staff to Golder Ranch per their agreement has somewhat degraded coverage of the areas La Cañada is working on annexing.

However, with the funds that the annexation will bring to La Cañada, the district intends to solve that problem by building a station within the La Canada Fire District, Treece said. Although his district's assessed value on property (or 10 percent of cash value) was about $24 million this year, he believes that figure will jump to $100 million once the annexations are complete, although that figure could be even higher depending on next year's real estate values.

"Our goal is to have a tax rate of $1.25 (per $100 of assessed value). That will give us a budget of $1.25 million, and we know you can run a station for about $1 million a year," Treece said. "The station will have all the bells and whistles, and we'll be in a situation where all we need from Rural/Metro is manpower."

Scott Butler, administrative chief for La Cañada, said most landowners in the annexation area understand that joining the district now will save them money in the long run.

"They understand that we're trying to keep rates low for them. Some of the people in the area that subscribe to Rural/Metro will be facing service issues as they close down their stations, and Rural/Metro hasn't shown us any plan to build new ones," Butler said.

While residents in the annexation area are close enough to subscribe for service from either Northwest or Golder Ranch, both those districts are more expensive than the $1.25 tax rate La Cañada will levy beginning July 1 (up from $.75), Butler said. Northwest's rate is currently $2.48 while Golder Ranch's rate is $2.11.

"The rates the big districts charge are unreal, and the same property owner will pay twice as much with Northwest than with us," Butler said. "Some people are simply not inclined to pay taxes, period. But most people quickly realize that joining us is a good idea."

Since a house fire is a relatively obscure threat, most people simply look for the cheapest fire service option, Butler said. However, rate comparisons aside, Butler said it's simply smarter to get people into a fire district wherever possible.

"Even if you're not subscribed for service, if someone picks up the phone and calls a fire truck to your house, you'll end up paying for it. If no one paid for it, it wouldn't be available at all," Butler said. "You might end up paying for nothing, but fire service is important to have."

Steve Sisson, president of the La Cañada Magee Neighborhood Association, whose neighborhood would be completely enveloped under La Cañada's annexation plan, said he supports expansion of the district.

"It certainly makes sense to us. It's a strong move and a smart move, and many people in our association are helping them get their petition signed," Sisson said. "The cost is less than a subscription, and I think everyone likes to hear that."

For subscribing customers not located within a fire district, Rural/Metro charges fees based on the square footage of the customer's home.

Sisson said most people in his association prefer La Cañada over Northwest and Golder Ranch because of the debt the larger districts have already accumulated.

"We're getting a better price because of their indebtedness, which is pretty significant. It's the people in the district that end up paying for it," Sisson said.

La Cañada's ambitions don't end at its annexation plan. On June 6, Governor Janet Napolitano signed a law that streamlined to process for fire districts to merge. Instead of having to put the matter to a vote of the districts' residents, two fire districts can now merge with an approving vote from each affected district's governing board.

If its annexation is successful, La Cañada will share borders with two other small districts serviced by Rural/Metro - Heritage Hills Fire District and North Ranch Linda Vista Fire District. The three districts are considering a three-way merger under the new law, Treece said.

"We already have tri-district meetings, and we're waiting on a contract to be written," Treece said. "I think all of our districts read the writing on the wall."

Treece said that although a Rural/Metro station is located in the Heritage Hills District on Thornydale Road, that same station is slower to respond to North Ranch Linda Vista farther north. With a successful merger, Treece estimates the combined district will have an assessed value of $270 million, allowing it to operate as many as four fire stations.

Jerry Phillips, governing board chairman for the 2-square-mile, 6,600 resident Heritage Hills Fire District, confirmed that his district is considering the merger, though nothing has yet been decided.

"We're a small district in size and bargaining power. With a merger, we'd be a stronger force when negotiating contracts and fees with Rural/Metro," Phillips said.

If La Cañada's annexations are successful, Heritage Hills would be surrounded on all sides. With no room to grow, Phillips said a merger could potentially allow his district, which has a tax rate of $.69 per $100 of assessed property value, to form a fire department with the two other small districts in the event it is abandoned by Rural/Metro, rather than forcing his district to merge with Northwest and its $2.48 tax rate.

"We're out to get the best service at the fairest rate. Our tax rate is a third of theirs and we get excellent service," Phillips said.

Pendleton says both the Rural/Metro Corporation and the union of its firefighters support this merger.

"There's strength in size, and at a certain point you're more efficient," Pendleton said. "This would be beneficial to our department because it makes us even more secure in the Northwest area.

Rural/Metro's contract with La Canada is renewed every year, Pendleton said. If either party ever chooses not to renew the contract, then Rural/Metro will continue to provide fire service for the district for an additional four years under an "evergreen" clause, he said.

North Ranch Linda Vista governing board chairman Roberto Villasenior said his district is similarly concerned with losing Rural/Metro's service.

"Rural/Metro has assured us that they have no intention of leaving, but like any business, no one knows what's down the road. We have talked about annexing new area, though we're holding back on that right now," Villasenior said. "The deal between Rural/Metro and Golder Ranch affected us when the station at First and Palisades closed, and now we're looking to put a station in our district."

Villasenior said that since he does not expect to maintain the same tax rate of $.67 per $100 of assessed value indefinitely, he would be fine with La Cañada's $1.25 tax rate if a merger became the best option.

"We enjoy an abnormally low rate because Rural/Metro offered us incentives when we were formed. It's unrealistic for us to expect to keep that tax rate and still receive the level of service we expect," Villasenior said.

The political entity that has shown perhaps most interest in the area La Cañada intends to annex is not another fire district but rather the town of Oro Valley, Treece said. Although Oro Valley has yet to begin any sort of formal annexation, La Cañada didn't want to give the town a chance to catch up, he said.

"The urgency comes from Oro Valley. They need the money and they want to annex. They want the (Foothills) Mall and (Omni) Tucson National (Golf Resort), but they'll take in the homeowners, too," Treece said, adding that he believes Oro Valley would favor Golder Ranch over La Cañada if the town annexed first and got to choose.

On the other hand, if Oro Valley annexed the area after La Cañada was already there, it would be difficult for the town to kick out La Cañada.

Such a situation concerns John Sullivan, Golder Ranch spokesman, because the inefficiency of having two fire service providers in Oro Valley is part of the reason his district made its deal with Rural/Metro.

"I would certainly like to talk to them because we don't want to convolute the system. Having two service providers within the town creates a complicated process, so we need to put our head together and come up with a five-year plan," Sullivan said.

Nevertheless, Sullivan said his district is paying more attention to Oro Valley's plans to annex north of its current borders as well as its own plans to annex all of Oro Valley.

Sullivan said Golder Ranch will begin collecting petition signatures to annex the Palisades Point neighborhood in Oro Valley by June 22.

"It's not one well swoop for all of phase one and phase two. Right now we're going to places next to our current boundaries in areas where there is a strong interest," Sullivan said. "We gauge interest when we have many people from a certain area asking when they will be annexed, and you get a feel for which areas are most wanting, but that's not the driving force. The whole premise here with this agreement is that we will be transitioning the entire phase one and phase two areas into the fire district."

Sullivan said Golder Ranch needs at least 50 percent of the approximately 65 landowners in Palisades Point to approve the annexation. He expects this to be completed by August.

"If people call in and want to set up a time, we'll come to their home and meet with them. We want to make it as convenient as possible," Sullivan said. "We try to get people living in the proposed areas to circulate the petitions, but we understand that sometimes that's not the most viable option because people may not have the time, so we'll also circulate the petitions for them."

Sullivan said a more complete plan for the order in which areas of Oro Valley Golder Ranch will make the effort to annex would be made available to the public by the end of June.

Northwest Fire District is currently planning its own annexation project. To keep up with growth in Marana, the district plans to begin circulating petitions to annex almost 1,500 acres between Tangerine and Moore Roads. This annexation area would include the second Gladden Farms development, slated for 1,750 homes.

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