By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia
A local fire district has teamed with an unlikely partner to make the most of limited funding.
The governing boards of the North County Fire & Medical District in Sun City West and the Sun Lakes Fire District in Chandler met Feb. 28 at separate meetings, which produced similar results — the boards adopted an intergovernmental agreement creating the first fire and medical authority in Maricopa County and only the third such organization in Arizona.
“We aren’t reinventing the wheel here,” said David Wilson, who chairs the NCFMD board. “Other areas have done JPAs for years. These are conducted democratically to represent their districts.”
The joint powers authority was also endorsed by Sun Lakes Fire Fighters Local No. 3560 and the North County Firefighters Association. The stated purpose of the agreement is to lower the cost of doing business by merging some functions without reducing the quality or quantity of services provided to their respective communities.
Though both districts were already part of the Regional Dispatch System, neither that agreement or the new JPA make it more likely either district would respond to fire or medical situations in each other’s neighborhoods, which are separated by more than 40 miles and more than an hour of traffic time.
“We are already operationally like one fire department,” said Mary Dalton, NCFMD assistant chief and president of the Arizona Fire District Association, regarding the existing RDS agreement, which allows fire and medical units from various municipalities and districts to seamlessly respond to incidents across jurisdictions. “It’s not like Sun Lakes is going to be responding in Sun City West.”
The JPA allows the districts to share some administrative functions to eliminate redundancies and reduce overhead, while retaining local control of budgets and operations. For example, under the new agreement, the two districts will operate with a single fire marshal, thereby eliminating a high level administrative position. However, neither district anticipates eliminating line level staff, according to Ms. Dalton.
“Under this model, the two districts maintain control over their budgets and services while maintaining separate tax rates,” stated NCFMD Division Chief Thomas O’Donohue in a press release. “However, the personnel, equipment, facilities and daily operations of the combined districts will be governed by a JPA board.”
The agreement, ratified with a 4-1 vote at NCFMD and with a unanimous OK from the SLFD board, will establish a five-member JPA board of directors to be comprised of three appointed members from NCFMD and two from SLFD.
Starting July 1, the new board will likely meet in Sun City West at NCFMD headquarters, which will serve as the administrative hub for the partnership. At least one monthly meeting each quarter may take place in Chandler, according to NCFMD Fire Chief Robert Biscoe.
The lone voice of opposition on the NCFMD board came from Jack Meyer, who has served as a member for 11 years. He expressed concerns that the new board created by the JPA could overshadow the local board’s authority.
“We will be at the mercy of the JPA if the final decision is with the JPA board,” Mr. Meyer said.
Although the JPA board will be created with a 3-2 voting majority in favor of its West Valley members, if future entities sign onto the JPA — which is possible — adding members from another community to the board could upset the balance, he suggested.
“If JPA expands, Sun City West could lose majority control,” Mr. Meyer asserted.
Mr. Biscoe countered that argument, pointing out that although the JPA board will have a say in operations, fiscal control remains with the local boards, who will still be responsible to set their own budgets and service levels. The JPA can only make budget recommendations and must operate within the budgets approved by NCFMD and SLFD.
“Financial control is with the individual boards,” he added.
As for the issue of majority control, if another district were to join the JPA, the existing board would control the terms of that addition, including how many board members they might contribute. The IGA provides no specific guideline for how many directors may ultimately comprise the JPA board, only that it is formed with five members, Mr. Biscoe said.
Mr. Meyer, who has consistently opposed the JPA, said he was concerned the decision was being made too quickly and without adequate public input. He circulated a letter to some Sun City West constituents shortly after the NCFMD board’s Feb. 16 special meeting. In the letter he urged them to attend the meeting and oppose the agreement.
Several of those who spoke in opposition at last week’s meeting said they had been phoned and personally invited to attend. Their concerns echoed those voiced by Mr. Meyer.
Sun City West resident Jim Smeets questioned the board about their support for the agreement.
“Why is it fair to have a district with so little resources join us?” he asked. “It’s not fair to spend our money to help other districts.”
Mr. Wilson answered his question and assertion.
“Your argument about this is really hollow,” he countered. “It is not based on fiscal concerns.”
Mr. Wilson pointed to the white paper, “Shared Fire and Emergency Services Analysis and Recommendation,” which was published in February based on research provided by an independent firm engaged by NCFMD. According to their report, the tax rate with the JPA will be 14 cents lower for North County homeowners, with projected savings going forward.
Likewise, Sun Lakes homeowners will see a five-cent reduction from their current $3.25 tax rate, which is the highest allowed by law. NCFMD, with a current tax rate of $2.86, is the only district in Maricopa County not maxed out at $3.25.
For an average home in Sun City West with a value of $200,000, the annual tax burden at the $2.86 rate is $572. For any other fire district in the county, where the rate is maxed at $3.25, a house of the same value would see a tax bill of $650.
The projected 14-cent savings for North Valley homeowners means an average savings of $28 in the first year. Although SLFD, which was denied an override for funding last fall, stands to save less money, both organizations stand to benefit from the JPA, according to the report.