Negotiations by the Northwest Fire and Rescue District to spend $897,000 to build a maintenance facility on land owned by Marana is stoking a larger concern among some NWFD board members and taxpayers over growing ties to the town.
The fire district's most recent financial foray into Marana comes just weeks after the district opened its new administrative headquarters inside the town's boundaries.
For critics, the increased funneling of money and resources to Marana is becoming a disturbing trend. They cite the fact that Marana's population of 13,556 people is only a fraction of the 125,000 northwest side residents the district serves, and claim the majority of taxpayers are subsidizing services for the town.
Part of their overarching argument against the relationship between the two jurisdictions is a concern that Northwest Fire residents could lose their shirts if Marana decides to start its own municipal fire department. The town could pick up facilities and equipment from the district for pennies on the dollar, said NWFD Boardmember Jane Madden.
"It just makes no sense," Madden said "We've been hearing rumors of Marana starting its own fire department for some time. Why would we go and spend almost $1 million on property that belongs to Marana? If they take over, they would have to pay us, but it's only going to be pennies of what we the Northwest taxpayers put into it."
In addition to the new administrative office and proposed maintenance facility that would be built next to the town's new governmental office at 5100 W. Ina Road, Northwest Fire has three of its eight fire stations within the town's limits. The district is also being courted to provide fire service to the town's Marana-Northwest Regional Airport.
Marana Mayor Bobby Sutton Jr. said the town has no immediate plans to start it's own fire department, but has considered it in the past.
"I can see their concern, but hopefully the boardmembers will see the good relationship with them. It's a risk that boards have to take when they're looking at a capital expense, but I think we're a pretty good risk for them. When we were doing our planning for a municipal fire department, we were looking out over a long period of time. I would estimate we would not do anything as far as a municipal fire department in the near future - the near future being three, four or five years, maybe even 10 years," Sutton said.
Marana, which disbanded its own volunteer fire department in June 1992, now relies on Northwest for all of its fire protection. Sutton said Marana formed a committee three years ago to decide whether the town should proceed with a municipal fire department, a volunteer department, or to contract for fire service.
"The idea of contracting with Northwest won out head and shoulders above the rest," Sutton said.
Northwest began annexing large sections of Marana in 1996 and added the last 800 Marana citizens to its tax roles in January 2001. Residents currently pay a tax rate of $2.42 per $100 assessed value of their homes.
Jim Schuh, a NWFD resident who lives in unincorporated Pima County and fervent watchdog of Northwest's spending, said he believes Northwest Fire is being moved into Marana by stealth, and has repeatedly called on the board to demand more information from NWFD Chief Jeff Piechura about deals with the town.
"The maintenance facility they're negotiating is being done like the other deals. There's very little information being brought forward. The district and town are operating incestuously," Schuh said. "The chief just does this stuff in secret and then springs it on the board at the last minute."
Piechura was attending a fire seminar in San Francisco last week and was unavailable for comment.
NWFD Assistant Chief Al Pesqueira said all board business concerning Marana facilities has been done in the open.
"That's just ridiculous. The development of the fleet services facility has been a two year process and we have repeatedly presented information at the board meetings. We're an open book," Pesqueira said.
The site plan for the maintenance facility, on land that NWFD would lease from Marana for $1 per year, was presented to the board by Piechura for approval at its Feb. 26 meeting.
The board voted to postpone approval of the site for one month to allow citizens to review copies of the plan.
Pesqueira stressed that the decision to lease land behind Marana's governmental site, which the town bought from Trico Electric Cooperative last summer and hopes to move in to in April, is far from a done deal.
"I have had some discomfort about leasing the site myself. I think ideally we would want to purchase property if at all possible," he said. "This is still very much in the preliminary stages."
In addition to the Marana lease, Pesqueira said the district is considering purchasing land somewhere else in the district, or renovating the current maintenance facility located on the district's extreme southern boundary at Davis Ave. and Curtis Road.
Madden said she's also incensed that Piechura has resurrected the district's former attorney, Donna Aversa, to negotiate the lease for Marana's land needed to build the facility.
Aversa was fired by the board in August 2000 at the same time Piechura was being audited for alleged financial abuses leveled by the district's former chief financial officer. Piechura was cleared of the allegations.
"She was just incompetent," Madden said. "She was a supporter of the chief, and tended to give us her opinions rather than legal facts."
Aversa said she has not yet participated in any of the negotiations with Marana and has no contract with Northwest Fire. She said she was brought in because the law firm of Hochuli and Benavidez has a conflict of interest - Dan Hochuli is the Marana town attorney, and Thomas Benavidez is Northwest Fire's attorney.
"Hochuli and Benavidez have a conflict and when I talked to Chief Piechura, he and I agreed to help them out … I'm not doing anything yet, but I may be asked to in the future," Aversa said.
"Who authorized the chief to hire attorney's we fired? No one has authorized him to begin these negotiations and no one has authorized him to spend money to bring in an attorney. She may say she's not working for the district, but the paperwork that the chief is sending to us indicates she is," Madden said
In his February report to the board, Piechura made reference to the negotiations and Aversa.
"We have had two meetings with town of Marana officials in the last month to solidify a site plan for the support services facility. An agreement is currently being drafted with the town to address a long term lease of the site. I am coordinating with attorney Donna Aversa to work with the town of Marana attorney to develop the lease agreement," Piechura wrote.
Pesqueira said Piechura's decision to bring Aversa into the negotiations is well within his rights as the fire chief.
"It makes sense, since our attorney has a conflict of interest, for the chief to use Donna Aversa. He has worked with her in the past and has a high comfort level with her. The chief is authorized to spend money to obtain certain goods and services. He doesn't have to go running out and get the board's permission for every little expenditure," Pesqueira said.
Hochuli said he recused himself from the Marana side of the site negotiations and Marana would be hiring an attorney in his place.
"Obviously this is a conflict of interests and obviously my firm can't represent two adverse parties in a negotiation, so we need to get out of it," Hochuli said.
"It's just another indication of how Northwest Fire and Marana are in bed together," Schuh said. "The chief is trying to build a fiefdom in Marana, and Marana could end up with a ready built fire department. The worst part of all is that much of this is being done in secret. The people's business should be done before the people."
KISNER RESIGNS FROM BOARD
Taxpayers living in the Northwest Fire and Rescue District who may have been inclined to fill the vacancy created by the recent resignation of a district boardmember have missed their opportunity to do so - probably without even knowing the vacancy existed.
The board voted 3-1 at its Feb. 26 meeting to accept the resignation of member Jim Kisner, then immediately filled the unpaid, elected position by appointing Lee C. Mellor to serve the remainder of Kisner's term that expires in November.
"I think this should have been opened to the district," said Boardmember Billie Jane Madden, who cast the only dissenting vote. "It was my feeling that the decision to fill the position was made even before we sat down for the meeting."
During the last two years of controversy that has swirled around many of the district's taxation, financial and administrative decisions, Kisner and Madden were often critics of NWFD Chief Jeff Piechura.
Kisner and Madden frequently aligned against Patrick Quinn, the board's chairman, and board members Linda Christopherson and James Doyle. The three often vote as a bloc in favor of Piechura's policies and recommendations.
In his resignation letter dated Feb. 22, Kisner cited time constraints caused by his out of town business interests as his reasons for leaving the four-year office he was elected to in 1998.
Kisner, former chief of the Flowing Wells Fire District that was absorbed by NWFD in 1986, had been absent from several board meetings during his tenure. Other members had raised concerns over his absences at a board meeting in June, when he was in danger of violating a board policy that allowed members to be removed if they missed three or more consecutive meetings.
Judy Scrivener, an employee of Pima County Waste Water Management Division who received 8,936 votes when she ran unsuccessfully for the NWFD board in 2000, said she would have liked to have been considered for the position and was stunned by the board's decision.
"I had found out just before the board meeting that Kisner had submitted his resignation. I would have thought that under normal circumstances they would have at least allowed people to express their interest in the position. I guess they had their minds made up as soon as they knew Kisner was going to resign. Somebody decided who was going to go in there," Scrivener said.
In 1999, Scrivener and Madden had both made runs for elected positions in the government of the proposed town of Casas Adobes.
Mellor, a 55-year-old retired agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, has served for about three months on the NWFD's Emergency Services Committee, which makes policy recommendations to the board.
"I'm well aware of the political climate and the three-to-two split that has existed on the board, and I'm just hoping I can keep the board and the district headed in the right direction," Mellor said, adding that he believed he would be an "independent" voice and not part of a bloc.
Mellor, who has lived in the Northwest district since 1978, said he has only attended three NWFD district board meetings, but plans to run for election to the board in the next election, scheduled for November.
Although nominated by Doyle, Mellor said it was Piechura who floated the idea of serving as the interim board member.
"I was approached about the position by Chief Piechura at one of the Emergency Services Committee meetings and he asked if I was interested," Mellor said.
Piechura was attending a seminar in San Francisco last week and could not be reached for comment.