June 29, 2005 - Marana council members unanimously approved a tentative 2005-06 budget last week that increased more than $3 million from figures presented during a May 26 budget workshop.

Contrary to the $89.8 million budget council members saw four weeks earlier, several late additions were made, including more pay raises, added capital improvements and the addition of 14 dispatch officers to handle emergency calls for the Northwest Fire and Rescue District. In all, the budget is now set at $93,053,040, establishing the town's maximum spending limits for the next fiscal year.

According to the meeting agenda made available to the public, Marana council members were expected to meet June 21 to vote on a budget that included about $92.6 million in spending for the next fiscal year. However, the approved budget includes $445,000 in additional expenditures.

In the days before the council meeting, $270,000 was added to the budget for road improvements to the Tangerine Road-Dove Mountain Boulevard intersection and $65,000 was added for Geographic Information Systems projects, bringing the amount council members saw on their blue sheets up to $92,943,040, said Marana Finance Director Roy Cuaron.

Then again, within the hours before the council meeting, another $110,000 was added for salary adjustments after a last-minute reanalysis of the town's salary plan, Cuaron said.

Contrary to an earlier proposed budget that included the addition of 21.5 full-time employees, the town will add 40.5 full-time employees to its payroll, bringing the full number of town employees to 319. The addition of 40.5 full-time employees will cost the town about $2.3 million, which includes vehicles and equipment, Cuaron said.

About $1.5 million is earmarked for phasing in the hiring of 10 new commissioned police officers, 14 dispatch officers and several support staff members, and for a conversion to a salary step plan for police officers.

Hiring the additional dispatch officers is contingent upon the town and Northwest Fire executing an intergovernmental agreement to provide dispatch services. Under the pending agreement, Northwest Fire would pay 100 percent of the service costs while the dispatchers would be town employees.

Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said discussions of such a move have been in the works for almost a year and the town even built the new Marana Municipal Complex with the idea that it would offer dispatch services to Northwest Fire.

Inside the new municipal complex, which also is home to the Marana Police Department, is a new state-of-the-art dispatch communications center, which Police Chief Richard Vidaurri said has been a blessing to his officers.

All of the equipment in the new dispatch center is ergonomic. If dispatchers want to stand up, their consoles rise with them. And if they want to walk around the room, their headsets allow them to comfortably do so. The town previously operated out of a modular building where wiring was a mess and everything seemed to be in disarray, Vidaurri said.

"The space is something that was long overdue," he said. "We now have work stations that easily accommodate two dispatchers at any given time - something the town struggled with for years, not only with personnel, but because of the confines of space."

Vidaurri said the town's relationship with Northwest Fire has been excellent over the years and he's looking forward to partnering with the district.

"That's going to really increase our communications center by leaps and bounds, and it's something we have to be ready for," he said, adding that "there's still a lot of work ahead" before the agreement is finalized.

Pima County resident Mary Schuh, president of the Pima Association of Taxpayers, said she's wary about the move, which she's going to watch with a jaundiced eye.

"All in all, you're going to see a huge increase to the Northwest Fire District taxpayers," she said.

In deciding how to spend about $33.2 million in this upcoming fiscal year, Northwest Fire has increased its budget by 23 percent for dispatch services, from $680,891 to $838,705. The district also is adding $75,000 for additional dispatch training.

At a June 14 meeting, Northwest Fire board members voted to approve spending $176,000 for computer gear and software that would allow the district's emergency vehicles to communicate with the Marana dispatch center. Northwest Fire Chief Jeff Piechura was given a $14,000 raise and a $9,000 bonus at the same meeting, upping his salary to $125,000 annually.

"We review budgets every year and never had I ever seen such a budget process. They surpassed anything they've ever done," said Schuh, who's known as a bit of a political gadfly when it comes to Northwest Fire and recently called its Emergency Services Commission on an open meetings law violation. "This had to be the most convoluted, bizarre budget process I've ever seen in my life."

Northwest Fire has received its dispatch services from Tucson since July 1992 but is now in the process of canceling that agreement as long as the move to Marana goes smoothly, district officials say.

"The town of Marana is going to have state-of-the-art dispatch technology, and that certainly is attractive in the emergency business," said Katy Heiden, Northwest Fire spokeswoman.

In 2003, the district entered into a multi-agency communications agreement with Golder Ranch, Avra Valley, Picture Rocks and Three Points fire districts. Northwest Fire has attempted to enhance dispatch, radio and data systems with the consortium, but Tucson has not committed toward a mutual aid agreement that the district wants, according to minutes from a March 8 board meeting.

At that meeting, district officials said the CAD system used by Tucson is not meeting the needs of the consortium and Marana could better provide services.

Schuh said she's wary of the symbiotic relationship Northwest Fire and Marana seem to have, especially since Northwest Fire's strategic plan states that the district hopes to become equated with and listed as a departmental level within Marana.

In addition to Marana councilman Jim Blake sitting on Northwest Fire's Emergency Services Commission, Marana's relationship with the district goes even further. The town recently fronted about $2.8 million to build Northwest Fire a new station next-door to the new Marana Municipal Complex.

Reuwsaat said an agreement with Northwest Fire should be finalized in the next couple of months but Marana is not leaning toward going municipal with fire services. He said it just made sense that the town should offer its state-of-the-art dispatch services to the district.

The town has listed $740,417 for "NWFD Dispatch Income" in its current revenue forecast, but Cuaron said it will cost the town about $680,000 to add 14 dispatchers.

"We're still working on those numbers, but it's going to be around a million-plus," Reuwsaat said. "The whole contract is to enhance public service, but the town needs to cover its costs. It's a very significant move for both organizations, so we want to make sure we do it right."

In other additions to Marana's budget, more than $410,000 is budgeted for pay bumps for town employees, including salary reclassifications and cost-of-living increases.

Another late addition to the town's budget includes a new coordinator for the town's senior programs, which has been a special interest of Mayor Ed Honea.

The town also decided to accelerate its cost-of-living increase so it will kick in June 25, rather than be phased in throughout the fiscal year, which town officials say should boost morale.

The Development Services Department will get $145,000 for an additional building inspector, plans examiner and engineering aide. Parks and Recreation will get $70,000 for new personnel, including $35,000 for expansion of the town's seniors program.

Operations and Maintenance will get about $75,000 for two additional staff members to help keep up with growth in the town, while the Water Department also will get $223,000 for hiring three full-time employees to keep up with growth in the utility system.

An additional $137,000 is budgeted for additional support staff including 1.5 positions in the town's Finance Department and also an assistant to the town clerk and another assistant to the town attorney.

About $300,000 is being appropriated for a cost-of-living increase to all town employees and adjusted salary levels.

Two-thirds of the budget, about $61 million, is dedicated toward capital improvements, including the following roadway improvements.

€ $8.8 million for Cortaro Road, east of I-10 to the eastern town limits.

€ $8 million for Silverbell Road from Cortaro to Ina.

€ $7 million for improvements to the Orange Grove-Thornydale intersection.

€ $9.4 million for the Tangerine Farms Improvement District and $6.1 million for the Twin Peaks interchange.

The Marana Regional Airport will get $5.8 million for runway capacity and safety improvements expected to spur economic development at the airport.

Parks and Recreation will get $2.1 million for new park design and construction, including the Santa Cruz River trail system, Continental Ranch District Park and the Tortolita Mountains trail system. Another $500,000 is appropriated to replace aging and deteriorating town vehicles and equipment.

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