The Golder Ranch and Mountain Vista fire districts may one day operate under a unified banner.
The prospect of consolidation, in one form or another, is by no means a new topic, said Mountain Vista Fire District (MVFD) Fire Chief Cheryl Horvath, who explained that the proposition arose as part of ongoing efforts to improve services to residents living within both districts.
Responding to a community of roughly 38,000 across 19 square miles of northern Pima County, Marana and Oro Valley, Mountain Vista was formed in 2008 after the merger of the former La Cañada, North Ranch/Linda Vista and Heritage Hills districts, and maintains a total of 54 employees at two stations. To the north, Golder Ranch Fire District (GRFD) has operated for four decades, and currently serves more than 60,000 with a team of 191 personnel from eight stations.
Additionally, GRFD maintains a Certificate of Necessity (CON), awarded by the Arizona Department of Health Services, which grants ground ambulance services the right to operate in a specific region. MVFD contracts through American Medical Response.
Improving and expanding services eventually requires an increase in revenue, a fact on which Horvath and GRFD Fire Chief Randy Karrer agree. MVFD, which maintains a roughly 80 percent residential district with little potential for commercial build-out, relies on property tax as a significant source of revenue. In the district’s currently adopted budget, $5.7 million of a $6.2 million in projected income derive from its 2.1 percent secondary property tax. Though the district’s rate can be raised by governing board approval, fire districts are ultimately limited by a state-mandated 3.25 rate cap.
“As fire districts get closer to that tax cap we’re required to start talking with our neighbors about how we can create efficiencies, create shared services and things of that nature, in lieu of just increasing taxes,” Horvath said. “I think that has set a legislative precedent for why these things might need to occur. Every time we want to increase service and we raise our tax, it hits the homeowner. …Golder Ranch has more potential for commercial growth and development, and that is going to be very helpful in the long run.”
The two districts already find time to train with one another and interact in the fieldwork as a result of various mutual aid compacts and intergovernmental agreements, which creates efficiencies, though more can be done in the future. According to Horvath, the potential consolidation seems a natural progression the more it is discussed.
“It’s a relief for us to be able to pick up the phone and call their folks and ask for help, and they’re right there taking care of us,” she said. “From my perspective here at Mountain Vista we are very lean administratively, and we’re going to stay that way for a little while. …We don’t have a lot of administrative support, so to be able to take off a little bit of that pressure and be able to call these guys is huge.”
Karrer agreed with his counterpart, though he stressed that any change in the structure or operation of either department would first and foremost benefit the public.
“I put myself in the position of being a homeowner or resident of the fire district,” he said. “What would be my expectation? Truth be told, the people really don’t care who it is, they don’t care what the name is on the back of the shirts. They care about us being there quickly, they want us to know what we’re doing and they want us to be nice to them. That’s what it’s about, in my mind, and I think that our districts culturally are so close in that regard.”
Though the specifics of any potential consolidation remain to be seen both agencies have taken the first step with a joint Request For Proposals (RFP) released on March 25 for a comprehensive evaluation and feasibility study for the potential consolidation of the two districts. The process will continue moving forward on April 28, when the proposals are due for review and recommendation to both district’s governing boards. Within the RFP preliminary schedule, governing board reviews are slated for May. The receipt of the final project is expected at end of July, though a timeline for implementation is yet to be determined.
A potential completion date is still in the air, though Karrer said the districts look forward to a relatively short process, as potential action by the state legislature may complicate the process. House Bill 2514, which is currently working through the state Senate after passage by the House, would—as one of several regulations—require any consolidating district(s) to also put its Certificate of Necessity for public bid. If GRFD were to lose its certificate, Karrer estimated up to $4 million in lost revenue.
“This is finally coming to fruition for the right reasons,” Karrer said. “It’s not like either of us financially has to do this—it’s just what’s right for the people, internally and externally.
Though the process of potential consolidation has just begun both fire chiefs expressed great interest in maintaining a transparent process, and encouraged the public to ask any questions in the coming months. For more information, including RFP and contact details, visit www.mountainvistafire.org and www.grfdaz.gov.