By Rusty Bradshaw
Although delayed, a study to determine the merits of merging Sun City and Daisy Mountain fire districts remains on the table.
Officials from both districts began the study in April 2017 and planned to consider a recommendation by January this year. But the effort was delayed by two tragic situations. One Daisy Mountain employee was murdered and officials were focused on the legal path of the suspected killer, and another employee was killed in a hunting accident. Sun City district officials were also busy building a new fire station.
Now fire district officials plan to get back to the study. Ron Deadman, Sun City fire chief, said the two sides plan to meet in September to refocus the study, although a firm meeting date has not yet been scheduled. The Sun City Fire District board will next meet for its regular meeting 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18 at the district headquarters, 18602 N. 99th Ave.
“It’s like a wedding,” Mr. Deadman said. “The bride and groom agree on how they want it to go, then the mothers get involved and throw in a lot of other things.”
Gabe Buldra, the Sun City district’s contracted finance director, was directed to put together the financial aspects of such a merger. But he will now have to update financial figures, according to Mr. Deadman.
“At the time we started this, we only had one ambulance, but now we have three,” he said.
A merger is not a done deal.
“This is not to say we will merge, we are just looking at the possibility,” Mike Thompson, Sun City fire chief at the time the study started, said in an interview with the Independent in April 2017.
Both fire districts have experienced financial restrictions since the 2008 housing market crash that created what some call an economic depression. That, combined with Proposition 117, a limitation on property tax approved by state voters in 2012, reduced revenue to entities dependent on that resource for funding, like fire and school districts.
“We will be looking at all aspects to see if a merger would be more efficient,” Mark Nichols, Daisy Mountain fire chief, said in an April 2017 interview.None of that has changed, according to Mr. Deadman. He also said there is no rush by either organization.
“We don’t want to rush things,” he said.
Daisy Mountain serves areas including New River, Anthem, Cave Creek, Carefree and Desert Hills, all north of Carefree Highway. The district also serves Black Canyon City after Daisy Mountain consolidated with BCC.
Mr. Thompson said Arizona legislators have passed and are considering more laws to make it easier for districts to merge. State lawmakers also in 2016 approved law that allows fire districts to seek a tax rate override that would increase the cap from $3.25 per $100 of assessed value to $3.50. An override, if approved, would be in place for five years.
Mr. Thompson said the merger study is an attempt to make sure fire protection remains constant for residents in both districts without going to voters for budget override requests.
“Legislators did this to give themselves time to study alternative funding formulas for fire districts,” Mr. Thompson said. “But the way they are pushing mergers, I don’t think they are really interested in finding a different formula.”
Sun City fire officials rejected seeking an override in 2016 because they were already asking taxpayers to approve a bond to build a new fire station and replace aging equipment. Voters approved the $10 million bond and the new station, with a cost of about $6 million, is expected to be occupied Monday, Sept. 10. Bond funds also helped purchase a variety of equipment and two new engines and funded refurbishment of one existing engine.
The Sun City Fire and Medical District had a bonding capacity of up to $19 million.
If the study finds merger is not the best option, the two districts will continue with intergovernmental agreements that include shared staff and purchasing — and others could be added. Mr. Nichols also said the district boards could also consider a joint powers authority.
“We could see some increased efficiencies with a merger,” Mr. Thompson said. “But a merger may not be the best way to go; instead it might be shared services. That is what this study will tell us.”
Mr. Deadman said he has been asked if there are contingency plans if a merger is not recommended. He said he has at least four options to pursue.
Mr. Nichols said the study is geared toward financial issues, most prominently retirement programs. Sun City Fire Department’s sworn firefighters participate in the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System and non-sworn employees, including office staff and ambulance personnel, participate in the Arizona State Retirement System. Daisy Mountain is a PSPRS participant only.
“We are a young department, personnel-wise,” Mr. Nichols said. “So that means the dual pension system may not work as well for us.”
He added the IGAs — shared maintenance and purchasing — between Daisy Mountain and Sun City are working out well so far.
“We have managed things well, so we don’t have to rush into anything,” Mr. Nichols said.
He shares Mr. Thompson’s pessimism there will be legislative reform of fire district funding.
“Anything that revolves around property tax no one is willing to take on and make adjustments,” he said.
That could spell doom for fire districts as the pressure to continually cut budgets to match shrinking revenue remains. Mr. Nichols said under current conditions it would take his department until 2028 to regain funding levels it had in 2008. Mr. Thompson said the Sun City department’s date to reach those levels is only slightly less.
In the meantime, Sun City Fire District officials continue their efforts to update operating equipment. During its Aug. 21 meeting the board approved two purchases to update computer and communication equipment. Sunstate, the district’s existing information technology provided, was awarded contracts to facility cable and Internet system throughout the district, and to replace the district’s microwave communications system.
“Both these systems were updated about 12 years ago,” Mr. Deadman said. “The Internet system is so bad that during training and other events there is so much buffering when trying to stream videos.”
The Federal Communication Commission will not allow district officials to simply upgrade equipment because it operates on a shared network approach and FCC officials are insisting the system be fully replaced with equipment that accommodates a single user licensed system, according to Mr. Deadman.
The cable and Internet replacement will cost $15,209 while the microwave replacement will cost $74,300. The latter was included in the bond funds approved by voters in November 2016..