Oro Valley is once again reviving plans to have the town become the sole provider of fire services to its residents by establishing its own fire department at a cost of $7.3 million to set it up and $4.7 million annually to run it. The issue will be presented to the council at a June 16 study session.

In a report to the Town Council, staff has recommended holding public hearings on the proposal next year after performance standards are adopted and putting the question to voters in 2005. The report also includes several alternatives.

Currently, Oro Valley residents north of Tangerine Road are served by the Golder Ranch Fire District and residents south of Tangerine by Rural/Metro Fire Corp. Both also serve areas outside Oro Valley's boundaries and Golder Ranch boundaries extend as far as SaddleBrooke and Oracle.

The town for the past 10 years has been concerned about the disparities between the two in service levels, quality of services, accountability and governance. Discussions as to whether that arrangement should change and how have been intense and politically charged. Staff has been working on the report or more than a year.

In terms of the differences between Rural/Metro and the Golder Ranch Fire District, Rural/Metro, as a publicly held, for profit corporation, provides fire and rescue protection and emergency medical transport services on an annual fee for services basis.

Property owners within Rural/Metro's area are not required to subscribe for services, but if they call for and are provided those services they're billed at a higher than subscription rate. An emergency medical transport service fee is optional and is charged in addition to the fire services subscription fee.

Golder Ranch, in comparison, is a political subdivision of the state and is funded through a secondary property tax based on the value of homes and businesses in the district and a fire district assistance tax levied by Pima County. The district provides fire/rescue services, emergency medical transport and fire protection education.

Oro Valley leaders have been pushing for the town's own fire department as a means of equalizing service levels across town, establishing a standard level and quality of service for all residents and businesses at comparable costs and having one organization held accountable.

The Oro Valley fire services report prepared by Town Manager Chuck Sweet, Police Chief Danny Sharp, Building Safety Administrator Terry Vosler, Finance Director David Andrews, Civil Attorney Joseph Andrews, Public Information Officer Bob Kovitz and Management and Budget Analyst Imelda Angelo gives the council several alternatives to examine in light of the cost of establishing a separate fire department.

Among these alternatives is the retention of the two current fire providers and the establishment of service level standards that would require at least four state certified firefighters be assigned to an engine and ladder company and at least six firefighters at the scene of a fire within six minutes of a call. The fire providers also would have to be able to respond to a medical emergency within five minutes 90 percent of the time and to a fire emergency within six minutes 90 percent of the time.

A host of other standards would also be applied and as long as both providers met the standards both would continue to provide services, but the town would have to hire more people to enforce these standards.

Another option presented to the Town Council in the report would be the expansion of the Golder Ranch Fire District through annexations that would include the present Rural/Metro service area.

Staff points out, however, that such an annexation effort could take a significant amount of time without a guaranteed outcome. Such an annexation, their report notes, also is more laborious than a municipal election, because while a typical annexation requires approval by 51 percent of the property owners representing 51 percent of the assessed value of an annexed area, a fire district election also requires approval by a majority of the registered voters in the annexed area.

Oro Valley wouldn't incur any additional costs in such an alternative, but property owners might see higher costs as a result of rate adjustments based on secondary and fire district assistances taxes, the report notes.

Under Arizona law, a fire district must have the approval of a city or town when the property to be annexed lies within the corporate boundaries of that city or town.

In November 1995, the Town Council approved Golder Ranch's bid to extend its boundaries within Oro Valley by annexation. Rural/Metro then brought suit against Golder Ranch in its attempted annexation of the Copper Creek subdivision. Last year, a Pima County Superior Court judge denied Rural/Metro's appeal of the annexation. The case is now before the Arizona Court of Appeals.

Another option to a separate fire department, given to the council in the staff report, is the possible formation of a new fire district that would encompass only the area of town served by Rural/Metro. The new district would enter into an agreement with a fire service provider to serve the new district.

Staff notes that a weakness to this alternative is governance. Because the new district would have its own board, that board might not value the one service provider and opt to provide services either directly or indirectly via the new district.

"The formation of a town district encompassing only the existing Rural/Mero service area within the town's boundaries would result in two distinct fire districts within the town," the report notes. "Despite the lack of a single service provider, this option would place service delivery that is now within the Rural/Metro service area into the control of a new fire district which is a public entity, rather than the private sector."

To create the district, the Town Council would first pass a resolution of intention and hold public hearings. After a waiting period, if 51 percent of the residents don't opt out of the district, the district formation would become successful. The initial district board may be comprised of members of the Town Council, but Arizona statutes require subsequent regular elections to elect a separate board.

This option would cost at least half as much as the $4.7 million annually that it is estimated it would take to run a separate Oro Valley Fire Department that covers the entire town

Two years ago, the Town Council allowed the terms of a seven-member Fire Advisory Board to expire rather than disband the board after accepting the board's recommendations regarding performance standards that would be demanded of a fire service provider.

The board had angered certain members of the council by a desire to explore issues beyond safety standards, such as whether the town should continue to be served by both Rural/Metro and Golder Ranch, whether a new fire district should be formed and whether Oro Valley should form its own department. The chairman of that board, Ron Koslowski, resigned just a week before, blaming himself for what he perceived to be a lack of progress by the board, especially after the completion of studies by an outside consultant at a cost of more than $30,000, the second such consultant study.

Rural/Metro Fire Chief George Good said he saw no surprises in the town's latest report, describing the report as a "compilation" of past issues.

"If the town wants these standards to be met, then so be it, we're happy to comply with anything they want us to do," Good said.

Good noted, however, that neither Rural/Metro nor Golder Ranch currently meet the proposed response time requirements or engine staffing requirements called for in the town's report.

The town's entry into the fire services arena, if approved by council and voters, would probably be initiated by the town's lease or purchase of existing fire stations. Full implementation might take up to two years, Sweet said at a press conference June 9. Golder Ranch and Rural/Metro would continue providing services until that time, he said. The recommended performance standards are based on National Fire Prevention Association standards and would not become mandatory until approved by the council.

Although two fire board reports and two consultant reports had basically been set aside, Sweet said there is a desire on the part of the council now to address the fire service issue since it is one of the basic services of any municipality. The council recognizes that as the town continues to grow, the expectations of its citizens for equitable service has grown, the issue isn't going to go away and now is the time to address it, Sweet said.

Means of financing the town's own fire department have not been determined and probably won't be decided until the completion of the public participation process, Sweet said.

Creating a separate fire department and the means of funding would be separate but overlapping issues in an election.

The town currently is provided free services of a fire marshal under an intergovernmental agreement with Golder Ranch. With its own fire department, the town would pay between $75,000 and $100,000 annually for a fire marshal under its supervision to enforce performance standards and to facilitate control over the quality, frequency and records maintenance of annual inspections and performance standards. The post has been budgeted for the past three years but not filled.

Golder Ranch officials could not be reached for comment by the EXPLORER's deadline.

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