November 8, 2006 - Saying they will provide service at a tax rate lower than their neighbors, three small Northwest fire districts have signaled their intent to merge.

However, representatives of other local fire districts are skeptical that the newly formed district will be able to maintain quality service at such a low cost.

The chairmen of the La Canada, Heritage Hills and North Ranch/Linda Vista fire districts Nov. 2 signed a memorandum of understanding declaring their intent to become one large district.

That new district, when combined with La Canada's proposed expansion, would be one of the 10 largest fire districts in the state. It would stretch from Thornydale Road east to just past Oracle Road and from Ina Road in the south to Lambert Lane in the north.

"There really is going to be strength in numbers," North Ranch/Linda Vista Chairman Roberto Villasenor said just after the documents were signed.

According to the districts' plans, the new combined district would have a tax rate of about $1.25 per $100 of assessed value and would provide service as timely and effective as that provided by neighboring districts Golder Ranch and Northwest.

Golder Ranch taxes its residents at a rate of $2.09 and Northwest at $2.47. Representatives from both Golder Ranch and Northwest doubt that the three merged districts will be able to make good on their plans.

"It would be very difficult for a company to provide the same level of service for $1.25," said John Sullivan, Community Services Division Chief of Golder Ranch. "I question it."

Katy Heiden, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Fire and Rescue District echoed that skepticism.

"I don't think they can provide the level of service that Oro Valley recommends or Northwest provides at that tax rate," she said, "but not having all the information, I don't want to say, 'No way.'"

La Canada Chairman Mike Treece seemed unsurprised by the doubt, but claimed the projections were in line with his experiences running a fire district.

The proposal will work, he said, because the new district will cover almost $300 million worth of assessed land value, which would provide enough revenue to support three fire stations needed to service the area.

"They'll say I can't do it," he said, "but we'll see."

La Canada has hired Scott Butler, a former general manager of the Rural/Metro Fire Department, to oversee the expansion process. Butler cautioned that La Canada's lower tax rates were not proof that Golder Ranch and Northwest are over-charging their residents. Rather, La Canada can charge a lower rate than its neighbors because it covers land that is more developed, he said.

"Engines cost what they cost. Things cost what they cost," he said. "There's no magic behind it."

La Canada began looking to expand after Treece and the other board members heard rumors that Rural/Metro Fire Department would cede all Oro Valley fire service to Golder Ranch. Those rumors became reality earlier this year.

La Canada and the other two small district contract for fire services from Rural/Metro as will the new, expanded fire district. However, Treece says the merger and expansion puts La Canada in a position to survive if Rural/Metro were to ever leave the area altogether.

Heritage Hills was much less enthusiastic about looking into a merger on the basis of only rumors, said Jerry Phillips, Heritage Hills' Chairman. "We were a little apprehensive."

But early this year, Golder Ranch and Rural/Metro reached an agreement in which Rural/Metro will provide ambulance services in all of Oro Valley and Golder Ranch will provide fire and emergency services. Rural/Metro has raised its rates to equal those of Golder Ranch while the district works to annex the rest of Oro Valley in three phases over 10 years.

After the agreement was announced, both Heritage Hills and North Ranch/Linda Vista began looking in earnest at the possibility of a merger with La Canada.

Over the next 120 days, North Ranch/Linda Vista, Heritage Hills and La Canada will finalize the plans for their newly-formed district. Still to be discussed are the new district's name and the make-up of its governing board.

The new district will become official if the members of each of those three districts' governing boards unanimously agree on terms or if the people in those areas vote to merge in an election. A recent change in state law allows districts to merge after unanimous votes by their governing boards.

According to Phillips, if the merger doesn't go through and Rural/Metro leaves the region altogether, Heritage Hills will have little choice but to merge with Northwest Fire District.

"(Northwest Fire District is) too free and easy with their spending," he said. "I don't want my residents to get involved with that."

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