This November, the voters of Oro Valley, Catalina and Saddlebrooke will see a question on their ballot asking to approve or deny a property tax rate increase to support general obligation bonds for the Golder Ranch Fire Department.
The bond will cover improvements for the district’s 10 fire stations spread out across northwest Tucson. Randy Karrer, Golder Ranch’s Fire Chief, said this is the best way to fund capital improvements without causing spikes in the property tax rate. Instead of increasing the tax rate to pay for individual needs, the district will issue two 20-year bonds in the amount of $26.6 million.
“It’s like doing a mortgage for your house,” Karrer said. “You use those monies for brick and mortar projects like building and remodeling fire stations, new property acquisition, new construction of whatever you’re going to be building. It’s about leveling out and balancing the taxing authority, so you don’t see those spikes and those dips.”
The district was founded in 1977, and over those four decades the stations have degraded from use and the standards for fire districts have improved, according to Karrer.
If approved by voters in the Nov. 5 general election, this bond package would allow the district to not only implement remodels of their stations to bring them up to building code and National Fire Protection Association standards, but also install new alerting infrastructure to reduce response times, build new training facilities and additional administrative office spaces, restructure existing debts and more.
It does not include buying new equipment such as fire trucks—which can cost upwards of $1 million—because they typically depreciate at a faster rate than the bond is active, so the district will continue to pay for them out of its operating budget.
According to the district’s bond committee, which was tasked with reviewing Golder Ranch’s proposed list of projects, the secondary property tax rates currently set at 9 cents per every $100,000 of assessed home value will quickly move up to 17 cents, but then decline again in the following years, decreasing steadily each year with a final rate of 8 cents per $100,000 at the end of the bond’s life.
“I just really think it’s an important set of projects that the fire department is putting forward,” said Barbara McClure, a member of the resident-led bond committee. “We did a lot of research and boiled it down to what was the most important. There was lots of due diligence to come up with those final pieces.”
Karrer said the first couple years of the bond will be dedicated solely to paying interest and restructuring the district’s existing debt. When Golder Ranch acquired the Mountain Vista Fire District in a 2017 consolidation, they took on their debt from the fire stations they purchased through the regular operating budget, which Karrer equates to using a credit card.
“Mountain Vista paid for their fire stations basically on the credit card, everything was out of their operation budget,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to do that. So the first thing we’re going to do is take that debt, which is about $5.5 million, and we’re going to put that in the general obligation bonds so that levels it out for the taxpayers.”
After that, the district can begin updates, starting with a remodel on one of its oldest stations, #375 in Rancho Vistoso.
“There’s kitchen formica coming off the counter, cracks in the floors, it’s not because it hasn’t been maintained, it’s just it’s old and you live in these buildings for 24 hours at a time, we’re hard on things,” Karrer said.
Some of the most important updates to come will help firefighters reduce their risk of breathing in carcinogenic debris that they inevitably encounter on the day-to-day job.
“The turnout gear they wear to go into a burning building becomes filled with carcinogens, so when they come back to the stations they have to launder those because if they put it on again, they’re just breathing the same stuff from that previous fire,” Karrer said. “We have to store it in a place that’s not going to be in the truck bay where diesel fuel is constantly being emitted and they are contaminating those things again.”
Some of the Golder Ranch stations do not currently have a separate storage area for turnout gear, which puts district employees at risk. Karrer said providing a clean, well-ventilated space to store for that gear will keep firefighters safe and extend the life of the gear itself.
“I have four members who currently have cancer or are in remission for cancer,” said Captain Bill Howe, who is also the president of the North Tucson Firefighters Association Local 3832. “Firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of cancer than the general population. The infrastructure improvements with the isolation zones to keep the cancer-causing stuff out of the living spaces, that’s all coming to light right now, the science behind it and our awareness of it.”
Karrer believes this bond package isn’t a “pie-in-the-sky wish list,” but rather a list of necessary items to ensure the success of the district’s future. Since it covers the next two decades, there will also be $6 million set aside to potentially build two new stations in the future, as residential areas continue to grow.
One will move Station 378 in Saddlebrooke Ranch from a residential house to its own building. The other will serve the Arroyo Grande area north of Oro Valley, if the town decides to develop that region.
“If that comes to fruition, we can sell those bonds to pay for that station,” Karrer said. “If it doesn’t come to fruition, we don’t have to sell those bonds. If they don’t come to fruition because of whatever recent politics comes into play, we still have that flexibility, and I think it’s just smart governance.”
Another major improvement included in the bond is a conversion from the district’s current analog 911 system to a fully digital system. It will allow dispatchers to answer multiple calls automatically.
“What happens if you’re a 911 caller, you wait in line with analog,” McClure said. “If your call comes in you wait in line until someone else hangs up. They’re going to rewire the buildings and put in a digital system so when you call you will get answered immediately and it eliminates the queue. They have to get all that wiring infrastructure put in at all the headquarters.”
With McClure and the six other committee members recommending approval of the bond package, the Golder Ranch governing board has decided to move forward with the projects. Karrer, his staff and a separately formed political action committee have been directed to start the process of putting together informational materials to provide to voters.
The bond will appear on the November ballot under the name Proposition 477 for residents of both Pinal and Pima County. Howe, who is taking part in the PAC, said they are preparing promotional materials and will be scheduling events, talking to homeowner associations, political groups and fundraising for the campaign.
“A lot of people will say that it’s expensive for all these improvements, but it’s hard to ask people to go take care of the community and try to make a difference if they don’t feel like they’re safe,” Howe said. “The biggest thing for me is advocating for a safe environment so we can deliver quality customer service.”
Karrer said bonds are a common way to finance these types of improvements. Northwest Fire District did a bond package in 2016, and Drexel Heights did one in 2017.
“Residents really want three things from us,” Karrer said. “They want us to be there really quick, they want us to know what we’re doing, and they want us to be nice to them. That’s our philosophy, and that’s what we’re going to do with these bonds.”