Caught in the crossfire - The Explorer: Pima Pinal

Caught in the crossfire

Merged district takes heat from lobby group, other fire districts over taxes

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Posted: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:01 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

The governing boards of three Northwest-area fire districts finalized a merger agreement last Tuesday, Sept. 9.

The tiny Heritage Hills and North Ranch/Linda Vista fire districts joined forces with La Cañada Fire District to form one constituency.

Thornydale Road to the west, Northern Avenue to the east, Ina Road at the southern end and Oro Valley’s jagged southwestern border make up the new district’s boundaries.

The move was the culmination of nearly two years of negotiations among the districts.

Members of the three boards nominated representatives from their ranks to serve on the new governing body.

The new board of directors includes: Earle Ruhnke (formerly of North Ranch/Linda Vista); Jerry Phillips and Meighan White (Heritage Hills); and Donna Heidinger and Mike Treece (La Cañada).

The new governing board sorted through an initial list of 15 names before unanimously settling on Mountain Vista Fire District.

Treece, only partly in jest, suggested calling the new district David Fire District.

“We’ve evolved as the David of fire districts,” Treece said, referring to the Biblical figure who legendarily killed the Philistine giant Goliath.

In the contemporary drama, larger fire districts and corporate lobbyists play Goliath to Treece’s David.

The Heritage Hills, North Ranch/Linda Vista, La Cañada fire district boards and, specifically, Treece, have been attacked for the merger.

Begining in June, the Arizona Tax Research Association skewered the planned merger, calling the move an abuse of county financial aid that would cost residents more in taxes.

“They ran it (the tax rate) up to what’s going to give them the maximum FDAT amount,” said Kevin McCarthy, the group’s president.

The Fire District Tax Assistance (FDAT) program provides fire districts with additional funding through countywide property taxes.

Fire districts can take up to 20 percent of their budgets in assistance funds, to a maximum of $300,000 per district.

But the law allows merged districts to retain multiple FDAT disbursements.

“The whole thing is to have a massive subsidy from the county,” McCarthy said of the recent merger.

La Cañada and the other districts artificially increased their taxes at the expense of residents throughout the county, according to McCarthy.

The unified Mountain Vista Fire District should receive $900,000 from Pima County.

“It is safe to say that most of the affected taxpayers located within the boundaries of the proposed district are not aware of the huge tax increase the merger will have, since the district members have not taken the time to educate them,” according ATRA’s June/July 2008 newsletter.

Treece disputes that claim.

The districts sent out merger information to all their residents, 60 percent of whom supported unification, Treece said.

The Arizona Fire District Association (AFDA) also joined the charge against the merger.

The group represents the interests of fire districts at the state legislature.

In August, group president Rick Southey sent a letter to the three Northwest-area districts expressing concerns over the then-proposed merger.

Retaining three FDAT disbursements in the newly merged district violates the “intent” of state law, Southey wrote.

“Isolated actions by a few fire districts that damage the credibility of all fire districts cannot be supported or condoned by the Arizona Fire District Association,” Southey wrote.

But Treece, the driving force behind the merger, discounts those characterizations.

“That’s where (critics) were wrong. We didn’t artificially raise anything,” Treece said.

Part of the agreement before the merger took place was to have Heritage Hills and North Ranch/Linda Vista increase their tax rates.

“I told them, if they want to come in, they have to pay their fair share,” Treece said.

The tax rate for Heritage Hills residents was $1 per $100 of assessed value. Residents will pay $1.90 for the current tax year.

North Ranch/Linda Vista also increased its rate from $1.22 to $2.18.

La Cañada’s rate remained at $1.25.

“That’s what they should have been paying all along,” Treece said.

He added that the increases were necessary to build new and maintain existing fire stations.

Taxpayers in the new district will pay the current rates from their former districts until the new tax year starts in 2009.

Treece estimates a $1.25 rate for taxpayers throughout the district by 2009.

Even without the merger, though, Treece said Heritage and North Ranch/Linda Vista likely would have had to raise their rates to cover additional costs.

The tax increases would have put the districts at the county maximum of $300,000.

The desire for more county funding had nothing to do with the merger, Treece maintains.

Even so, Treece doesn’t dispute that the new district will get $900,000 in county funding. In fact, he’s glad they’re getting it.

“Should I not take the money the state says we’re entitled to?” Treece asked.

Efforts by the Arizona Tax Research and Arizona Fire District associations to paint the merger as a cash grab were untrue, Treece said.

“ATRA is a political-lobbyist group, and they come out and lie to the public,” Treece said.

The names of ATRA employees, including McCarthy, do appear on the roster of lobbyists on the Arizona Secretary of State’s Web site.

Larger fire districts have criticized the merger as well.

Golder Ranch Fire District Chief John Fink called the rapid tax increase “artificial,” simply an effort to capitalize on county funding.

“Our issue is not with the merger,” Fink said. 

The merged district could likely reduce duplication of services and provide better fire protection, Fink said.

Golder Ranch merged with Oracle Junction Fire District in 1996. The district now receives money from Pima and Pinal counties totaling $600,000.

Northwest Fire District has also opposed the way the districts planned the merger.

“It’s not in the spirit of why we do mergers,” Northwest Chief Jeff Piechura said.

He also pegged the merger as an “artificial” way to get more county funds.

“It’s too bad that one group has to ruin it for the other districts,” Piechura said.

Northwest in 1996 joined forces with Flowing Wells Fire District. The combined district gets about $524,000 in assistance funding annually from Pima County.

Treece plays down the tax issue, saying that for fire protection, it’s a small price for residents to pay.

FDAT represents a minimal amount in property tax payments.

In Pima County, the FDAT rate stands at 4 cents per $100 assessed value.

At that rate, the owner of a home assessed at $200,000 pays slightly more than $8 per year in FDAT.

“My portion,” Treece said, “is like 60 cents a month.”

FIRE DISTRICT TAX RATES

Avra Valley: $3.08

Northwest: $2.26

North Ranch/Linda Vista: $2.18

Heritage Hills: $1.90

Golder Ranch: $1.76

La Cañada: $1.25

Mountain Vista $1.25*

*The estimated fiscal 2009 rate for the newly formed Mountain Vista Fire District.

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