Dec. 29, 2004 - The Northwest Fire/Rescue District is currently putting together a proposal for service for the Heritage Hills Fire District governing board. However, officials from both organizations said it's premature to say Heritage Hills has any plans to change its fire service provider.

Right now, Heritage Hills receives fire service through the Rural/Metro Fire Corp. NWFD chief Jeff Piechura said that Heritage Hills Fire District board president Jerry Phillips approached him and asked if Northwest Fire could prepare a proposal for his district. NWFD's board agreed to create the proposal at its Dec. 14 meeting.

The Heritage Hills Fire District covers only two square-miles, and has about 9,000 customers. Phillips said he requested the proposal from NWFD because the Heritage Hills Fire District and Rural/Metro are undergoing contract negotiations for the continued use of Rural/Metro's fire service in Heritage Hills.

"Have you ever shopped for car insurance," Phillips said in a telephone interview, indicating why he had requested the proposal. He said Heritage Hills was only trying to compare the rates of different fire service providers, which would assist in determining the best course of action for the Heritage Hills Fire District.

"Contracts between Heritage Hills Fire District and Rural/Metro Fire Department are scheduled for next year," Phillips said in a statement issued by Rural/Metro. "As an option we have asked neighboring departments about their service offerings and prices to use as a comparison. Rural/Metro has done an excellent job servicing our residents, and I'm committed to making sure our residents continue to receive the highest levels of service at a fair price."

Should Heritage Hills change to NWFD, its residents would likely pay considerably more for their fire service, given current tax rates. For NWFD the tax rate is $2.38 per $100 of the assessed value of a home, whereas with Rural/Metro it is less than a quarter of that, at 53 cents per $100.

For that reason, Rural/Metro's public information officer Rick Flores said he is confident that the corporation will retain fire coverage for Heritage Hills. He also dispelled any rumors that the fire company plans to move out of the Northwest.

Phillips said he's not interested in having Heritage Hills residents pay the cost for the $37.5 million bond passed by voters within the NWFD taxing district. Piechura said if Heritage Hills chooses NWFD as its fire service provider, its residents would pay the same rate as all other NWFD fire service users.

Phillip's request comes at the same time Rural/Metro has undergone significant pressure from Oro Valley's town council. Some council members have indicated they are interested in the Golder Ranch Fire Department becoming the sole service provider for Oro Valley. In a July meeting, Oro Valley's council voted for the annexation of the town hall campus by Golder Ranch Fire District, which provides fire service for Oro Valley residents living north of Tangerine Road. Some council members have suggested Golder Ranch provide fire service for all of Oro Valley. The loss of fire service would impact Rural/Metro financially because its revenue is based on customer subscriptions, whereas NWFD and Golder Ranch collect revenue through taxes based on property value.

Despite this and Heritage Hills' request for a service proposal from NWFD, Flores dispelled any rumors that Rural/Metro has plans to remove its services from the Northwest.

"If anything we're expanding our coverage and equipment in the Northwest," Flores said.

In addition to creating a proposal for fire service for Heritage Hills Fire District, NWFD also decided to move forward with the implementation of a "facilities benefit assessment fee," or impact fee, at its Dec. 14 meeting.

The board decided to move forward with the fee, despite information that the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association would oppose the fee on legal grounds.

Piechura said the fire department is currently negotiating with Marana and Pima County about ways to collect the fee. He said NWFD is considering a similar approach that the county takes when assuring the developer will provide the funds for a home's connection to the sewer line.

Piechura also compared the fee with those collected by the Marana Unified School District. In that situation, developers building subdivisions in Marana either set aside property for school sites or pay $1,200 per home for the impact their developments will have on the district. However, that is a voluntary impact fee that developers agree to for a specific project.

SAHBA Vice President Roger Yohem said while the association provided financial support for the passage of the $37.5 million bonds, which will be paid over the next 20 years, the fire district's impact fee is not in the best of the interest of the builders.

"When something crosses the line we have to support our builder members," Yohem said.

SAHBA's government liaison Alex Jácome said while counties, cities and towns have the authority to enable impact fees, fire district's do not. As a result, SAHBA will challenge the legality of the fire district's fee.

If the fire district collects the fees, the revenue will be used to provide infrastructure for new growth, Piechura said. The fire district requires funds from both the bonds and the impact fees, he said. Money from the bonds will go to meet existing growth needs while the facilities benefit assessment fee will accommodate future growth, Piechura said.

The fire district wants to collect $387 per rooftop for single-family residential homes, or $296 per unit for a group of houses, such as condominiums or apartments. The amount for commercial or industrial property is graduated per 1,000 square feet, based on occupancy classification, Piechura said.

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