While awaiting a decision in an Arizona Supreme Court case that could affect contractual agreements between governments and businesses, the Northwest Fire District continues in a holding pattern regarding a previously proposed contract to protect the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain.

The proposed contract with the Ritz-Carlton, tabled by the fire district's board in January, would allow a discounted rate for emergency services. The district is waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on Turken v. Gordon, the Phoenix case dealing with a provision in the state constitution called the "gift clause," regarding the use of public resources to benefit a private entity or person.

"The court case on the gift clause certainly has an impact to fire districts with contracts for folks outside the fire district," said Jeff Piechura, Northwest Fire chief. "These might be residential or commercial property owners, or even vacant land areas. According to the appellate court decision in the case, the pricing structure for those agreements needs to be in line with what it costs the taxpayers of the fire district, at a minimum."

Bill Hallinan, vice president of Cottonwood Properties, declined to comment, saying the company would wait until the Turken case was decided before considering whether or not to continue negotiations on the proposed contract with Northwest.

Piechura noted Northwest has contracts with residential property owners outside of its district, in areas the district can't annex for reasons of distance or lack of adjacency. Northwest charges a rate of 125 percent of the tax rate for those properties.

Northwest's residential rates are 10 percent of the secondary assessed value on a property. Commercial rates are 21 percent of commercial value and are scheduled to drop to 20 percent in 2011.

Northwest has an agreement with the Cemex plant in Rillito for supplemental response, according to Piechura. Northwest offers assistance when the plant requires it.

"I think we average one call a year there and it's generally a really bad incident where something's happened to an individual and not necessarily to the property," he said.

The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain has sought to pay "approximately 60 percent of what their tax bill would normally be" if it was annexed into the district, Piechura said. The resort indicated it would handle all medical emergencies except the most serious with onsite staff.

Piechura said the Ritz-Carlton "doesn't have an onsite medical technician on staff like the Cemex plant does, or a full-blown medical system," but rather "a risk management group that's there for security and guest services."

With that staffing level, the Ritz-Carlton would require a regular response from Northwest, Piechura said. Because of a memorandum of understanding between the district and the town of Marana, Northwest responds to any area in the town that isn't part of the district, but that "the response would be the responsibility of the property or the individual."

Northwest responds to incidents at the Ritz-Carlton on an available basis, Piechura noted.

"We're not required to respond there and we get there as best chance and sometimes not in a first position," he said. "Since they've started construction (on the hotel), we've been there about a dozen times for medical calls, like someone falling into a cactus or having a fall, but not for any fire calls."

Michael McMahon, general manager for the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, said the Marriott Corp., owner with Cottonwood Properties of the resort and properties, "has a fire and life safety team that insures our overall standards protect our guests and staff," but acknowledged the team did not include onsite fire or emergency medical personnel.

District building new fire station at Thornydale, Tangerine roads

Northwest Fire is expanding its physical assets to improve response times throughout its district, but especially in its northern reaches.

Northwest has a new 11,000-square foot station under construction on Thornydale Road at Tangerine Road which will have four apparatus bays in a two-bay, two-deep configuration, as well as living and working space for seven firefighters.

Land for Station 39 was donated by the Ault Companies, developer of Villagio shopping center nearby.

"We expect the station to be completed in February or March of 2010, and then it will take another 60 days to get the equipment and furnishings installed," said Jeff Piechura, Northwest fire chief, said. "It'll provide another station in that corner of the district where we annexed and are undergoing further annexations."

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