Superstition Fire & Medical: Financial crisis affects fire districts across Arizona

When someone calls 911 for a fire or medical emergency, there is a fundamental expectation that a crew of firefighter/paramedics will show up and take care of their needs. This expectation holds true for over 1.5 million residents across Arizona residing in rural fire districts. Arizona’s 156 fire districts are served by more than 4,000 highly-trained firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians. In 2013, fire districts across the state responded to 153,000 emergency calls, providing professional life-saving services.

Ask any Arizona fire district chief today if they think they can maintain the levels of service their respective citizens have come to expect and they will likely tell you in one voice – No. The main reason they say, restrictive legislation. After the “Great Recession,” every fire district encountered a devastating economic crisis that caused assessed home values to plummet some 45 percent.

At about the same time, Arizona voters went to the polls and passed a very controversial law in Proposition 117. Prop. 117 claimed it would restrict annual fire district revenue growth to 5 percent. About the same time, county assessors throughout the state began calculating property values differently. This “Triple-Whammy” devastated many Arizona fire districts and forced one-third of the 156 fire districts in the state to the maximum tax rate cap of $3.25 per $100 of assessed value.

Funded primarily by property taxes based on the Net Assessed Valuation of properties in their boundaries, these drastic changes have created a dire situation in which fire districts are trying to meet today’s increasing demand for services with pre-recession funding. Some speculate that with these regulations in place, most fire districts will not recover back to 2009-10 funding levels until sometime closer to 2028-29.

Through careful fiduciary management, and prior foresight the Superstition Fire and Medical District (which encompasses 62 square miles and serves the city of Apache Junction, the unincorporated areas of Gold Canyon, Superstition Foothills, Goldfield Foothills and Entrada Del Oro) has fared better than most other fire districts across the state. But this could be short-lived if legislative relief doesn’t come fast. The realities of Prop. 117 have fallen far short of what the voters were told when they enacted the law.

“The taxpayers were told revenue would be capped at 5 percent but county assessors across the state agree that this will never happen,” said SFMD Fire Chief Paul Bourgeois. “County assessors have told fire districts statewide to expect, on their best years, a modest 2 percent-3 percent growth rate,” he continued. “That simply doesn’t keep pace with inflation and it’s certainly not consistent with what voters were told when they passed Prop. 117.”

Some fire districts in the smaller rural areas of the state have suffered workforce reductions through forced furlough days and many firefighters have been laid off. This has resulted in fire stations being under staffed or closed completely. These drastic measures have resulted in increased response times to emergency calls in the most needful rural areas where mutual-aid assistance from other neighboring districts is sometimes non-existent. In most of these districts, non-emergency related public education programs have either been severely reduced or slashed altogether.

SFMD has joined a statewide effort to educate legislators and offer a “local control” solution to the crisis. Currently the law limits fire districts to a cap of $3.25 per $100 of assessed property valuation. Once at the cap, however, the fire board members’ hands are tied as they’re prevented from adopting budgets that make sense for them and that meet the demand for service in their community.

Advocates like Chief Bourgeois want to restore the taxpayer’s power and authority.

“By allowing local control, the residents and taxpayers of Arizona fire districts will have the freedom to choose (and fund) the level of service their populations necessitate independent of burdensome and arbitrary caps and regulations,” said Chief Bourgeois. “Communities will be free to execute budgets that work for them and that reflect managed and forecasted financial plans constructed in partnership with their local fire officials and fire boards.”

The Arizona Fire District Association in cooperation with the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association and the Professional Firefighters of Arizona have partnered to achieve these much needed legislative changes. AFDA has publicly recognized the need for checks and balances and has indicated that a state law already on the books, long before Prop. 117, caps tax levy growth at 8 percent.

Despite this crisis, the SFMD is committed to developing more efficient and innovative ways to add value and serve its community. Last year the SFMD responded to over 9,000 calls for service, an increase of nearly 1,000 calls from the year before.

The SFMD invites all its citizens to visit these informative links to learn more about this important subject:
Save Our Fire Districts AZ

If you would like to know more about the SFMD, visit our website or call our offices at 480-982-4440.

Editor’s note: Dave Montgomery is the assistant fire chief and public information officer for Superstition Fire and Medical District.

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