Residents oppose fire district annexation, say it's too costly - The Explorer: Pima Pinal

Residents oppose fire district annexation, say it's too costly

Airpark owners organize; GR says it gets free service

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Posted: Tuesday, October 5, 2010 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:20 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

A proposed fire district annexation in Oro Valley has been met with opposition from a group of residents,

Nearly all of the 120 property owners in La Cholla Airpark have refused to sign annexation petitions circulated by the Golder Ranch Fire District. Some of the residents have organized a formal opposition to the move to incorporate the airpark and nearly 500 other properties, mostly in Pima County, into the district.

"I think it's just a big money grab," said Dick Heffelman, a La Cholla Airpark resident and one of the forces behind the group Citizens Against Annexation.

Heffelman said he wants to see less government and doesn't want to pay the more than $1,100 in secondary property taxes per year he estimates annexation would cost him. The total secondary rate in the district stands at $1.73 per $100 of assessed value.

"It's more than twice as much as I pay for insurance," Heffelman said.

Residents have proposed having all homeowners pay $1,000 into a fire-service fund that would be tapped to pay fees for emergency services.

Rural Metro fire used to cover La Cholla Airpark, but the company asked Golder Ranch to annex the area. Residents like Heffelman said they would rather self-insure, or simply pay a fee for emergency assistance.

That would be fine, Golder Ranch officials said, if airpark residents were ever charged for emergency services.

"Golder Ranch has been responding in there since 2006 and addressing their emergencies and it hasn't cost them a dime," Community Services Division Chief John Sullivan told the Oro Valley Town Council at a Sept. 22 meeting.

To date in 2010, the fire district has responded to 27 calls for emergency services in La Cholla Airpark, including a fire at an airplane hangar in January, Sullivan said. The district did send the property owner a bill for more than $10,000 for fighting the hangar fire. It has recently instituted a service-fee schedule.

"They're riding on the backs of the system put into place at the expense of taxpayers in Oro Valley," Sullivan told the council.

The discussion prompted rebukes from some on the council, including Councilman Joe Hornat. "Personally, I would like to see everyone share in the costs," Hornat said.

Councilman Steve Solomon was more severe in his assessment of the situation.

"I would be for posting signs (at the entrance to the airpark) that say, 'You are now entering an area that has no emergency services,' because that's what they are fighting for," Solomon said.

Heffelman disputes suggestions that other Oro Valley residents effectively subsidize emergency services for the airpark.

"If I get service from them, I'll pay for it," he said. "I expect to pay for it."

That's what he anticipates will happen if the annexation fails.

Heffelman said he and other airpark residents have managed to convince some of their neighbors who signed the annexation petition to withdraw their signatures, leaving just three residents that still support the effort.

The district has collected less than 200 signatures.

Sullivan told The Explorer that a fee schedule does not allow the district to recover costs associated with its response efforts.

"We can never fully recover our intangible costs," for expenses such as training, equipment and facilities, Sullivan said. Service fees only cover the tangible costs associated with individual responses, like wages and material.

The fire district needs to get at least half the residents plus one to agree to annexation to go forward. Heffelman doesn't think they'll get it.

"I think they'll offer subscription-based service," Heffelman said. If not, he said another fire district would pick up where Golder Ranch left off. Sullivan said fire districts are not obligated to serve areas outside their boundaries.

Rural Metro fire would respond to fires and other emergencies if Golder Ranch decides not to serve the La Cholla Airpark community. Kord's Southwest Ambulance Service would provide medical transport services.

Sullivan said the response times would not uphold the same standard that Golder Ranch does under its agreement with Oro Valley. Golder Ranch has to respond to emergencies in the town within five minutes at least 90 percent of the time. Its ambulances have to respond within eight minutes 90 percent of the time.

Kord's, by comparison, has to respond within 60 minutes 80 percent of the time, Sullivan said.

"We have a fiduciary responsibility to our taxpayers," Sullivan said, and that doesn't include providing services to residents who don't pay district taxes.

The total assessed value of the entire annexation area tops $26.3 million, and the amount of taxes those property owners would pay would be roughly $412,000 in the 2011 tax year, Sullivan said. La Cholla Airpark makes up about $8.2 million of the total assessed value and would pay $130,000 in taxes, Sullivan said.

He stressed that he doesn't want airpark residents to be without services and encouraged residents to work with Golder Ranch or another fire district to ensure reliable delivery of emergency services.

The district has until May 2011 to collect the needed signatures and present them to the Pima County Board of Supervisors for approval.

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