In answer to a Sun City resident’s questions (“Is department merger really necessary?” Sun City West Independent, Sept. 21, 2022) regarding feasibility studies with the Arizona Fire & Medical Authority with Buckeye Valley and Sun City fire districts.
One of the significant benefits of a fire authority is that various districts can join together under one operating umbrella and reduce overhead expenses with economies of scale — one fire chief, fire marshal, liability insurance policy instead of five with the previous five districts (Sun City West, Wittmann, Sun Lakes, Tonopah, Buckeye Valley) and all five districts can assist with paying a portion of the cost of specialized vehicle maintenance equipment instead of each district having to buy their own. Yet, the partner agencies can still maintain their own community-elected board of directors with local control and tax rates. BVFD has a different tax rate than South County, and under the fire authority model, South County residents will not be subsidizing BVFD residents and vice versa.
As far as SCFD or any other district interested in joining the Authority, the decision to maintain their own agency as a partner agency versus combining with an existing partner agency would be looked at on a case-by-case basis. Is the new agency in a similar financial position as an existing partner agency and are their elected officials interested in combining with an existing partner agency, or do they have very disparate financial positions and elected officials that want to maintain their own area oversight?
The answer to this question would come from the feasibility study performed by a third-party agency. As a matter of transparency and certainty, AFMA officials retain a consulting firm to complete an unbiased feasibility study to evaluate whether the agency would be a viable fit for the organization. This study contains a complete analysis of both agencies’ finances, organizational structure, emergency response capabilities, financial and economic forecasts, etc.
There are three possible ways a fire agency can join the Authority. First is as an additional partner agency, where the entire fire district is added to AFMA, including the existing fire board. This means the jurisdictional boundaries and the special taxing district remain the same. The second would be through consolidation. This would require the existing fire agency to be completely dissolved and be absorbed into one of the other partner districts. Through consolidation, the fire board and special taxing district dissolve and the jurisdictional boundaries are expanded. Third, is a merger where two fire districts both dissolve and form a new agency, including the fire boards and special taxing districts. So, a new tax rate would be set, a new district is named and 5 board members are appointed from the previous 10.
Today, each separate district is already staffing its own fire stations, so joining the Authority does not increase the need for fire station staffing. Yet, the financial savings of having one operating organization vs. multiple organizations with duplication of administrative/support positions, equipment, services, etc. provides the opportunity for cost savings, improved service for their residents, and improved working conditions and opportunities for the fire district personnel.
The National Fire Protection Association Standards and Best Practices recommends that all fire trucks be staffed with four personnel for adequate/effective service delivery and firefighter safety. It also recommends that each firefighter be issued various personal protective equipment to keep them safe in a fire and to prevent their exposure to cancer-causing contaminants and they should have regular ongoing training. Because of the current funding restrictions for Arizona fire districts, many districts cannot afford to staff their apparatus with four personnel or provide their firefighters with the appropriate PPE and training. The shared service savings can be utilized to increase staffing levels to meet minimum requirements and provide adequate equipment and training, as well as cost savings for its residents. Most importantly, these fire districts can maintain the standard level of service and not jeopardize their standing in the Phoenix Auto-Aid System due to the rising cost of equipment, apparatus and supplies.
The feasibility study would answer many questions, but it is safe to say if Sun City Fire District were to join the Authority, it would not require additional costs or expansion because the services are already in place. The immediate Authority benefits of spreading out costs and ensuring long-term financial stability exists for growth restricted districts, such as Sun City, while maintaining the number of resources available to the first responders and the community as a whole. The Authority is predominately an ISO rating of 1 (best rating for insurance premiums) and is internationally accredited. With more than 50,000 fire departments nationwide, only 113 are accredited with an ISO rating of 1. This accreditation status continues to verify that under AFMA’s leadership, the highest standards for effectiveness and efficiency in responding to emergencies.
The Authority model ensures each partner agency (i.e., North County or South County) pays its’ fair share and is not subsidized by one of the other partner agencies. Therefore, each partner agency has a budget with differing tax rates, which will cover the cost to provide service to their community. Annually, each separate partner agency and AFMA is audited by independent CPA/auditors. One of the auditor’s responsibilities is verifying that each agency is paying their fair share and is not subsidizing another agency.
If SCFD were to become an AFMA partner agency, SCFD would still collect enough property taxes to cover its fair share of the service delivery costs. Then they would transfer the funds to AFMA to pay their proportionate share of the costs. The SCFD board would be mandated by state law to continue to hold regular public board meetings, to review their district’s monthly financial statements and conduct public meetings where the Sun City residents have input into the level of service they want to be offered in their community and can provide input on annual budgets before the SCFD annual budget is approved.
The question of whether the SCFD name stays on the fire trucks would be a decision of the SCFD Fire Board. There are various benefits to keeping the partner agency name or having all the apparatus in the Authority’s name. Some fire authorities use a process where the apparatus has the Authority name on it, but it also says, for example, “Proudly serving the residents of Sun City.” This can also be done cost-effectively by placarding so trucks can be moved to various partners and still provide local connections while moving apparatus to various partner locations, limiting the redundancy in overspending on costly apparatus.
Ultimately, a North or South County Fire & Medical District property owner can know that if they see an AFMA apparatus on the streets, they can rest assured their tax dollars are supporting a fire and EMS agency that is providing world-class services at the most affordable rate possible. Had the communities of the North or South County Fire & Medical districts not taken the proactive steps to create and join AFMA years ago, each of these communities would be paying a higher tax rate for fewer resources and service levels, while jeopardizing our inclusion in the auto-aid system and all the benefits received from the Authority.