Fire advisory committee recommends property tax

By Linda Bentley | December 3, 2008

Suggested replacing property tax when Spur Cross tax expires
CAVE CREEK – In May, the Citizen’s Advisory Committee on Fire Coverage was formed to study the town’s current method and other options of providing fire protection for the town, after a group of citizens from Rancho Mañana said they were unaware they needed to subscribe separately to Rural/Metro Fire Department.

During his presentation to council on Nov. 24, Jim Bruce, committee chair, said the current provider (Rural/Metro) is doing what it’s required to do and it was doing it well.

After acknowledging all the citizens who served on the committee as well as town staff, Bruce said the committee held 11 meetings, during which they listened to presentations by Kraetz, Carefree Mayor Wayne Fulcher, Daisy Mountain Fire District Chief Tom Healy and Paradise Valley Police Chief John Wintersteen on each town’s means of providing fire service.

Fire service in Cave Creek is currently provided by individual property owners’ subscriptions to Rural/Metro, although only about 50 percent of the businesses and residences in Cave Creek are subscribers.

And, subscribing is voluntary. However, if Rural/Metro is called to a fire and it is later determined the property owner was not a subscriber, the property owner could be liable for the actual cost of putting out the fire, which could run as much as $30,000, depending on the extent of the fire.

John KraetzKraetz reiterated Rural/Metro responds to all fires, regardless if the property owner is a subscriber and dispelled any notion that nonsubscribers are without fire protection.

Bruce stated Rural/Metro is a private, for-profit business, but he also pointed out 85 percent of Rural/Metro’s calls were for emergency services not fire.

Additionally, as the Rancho Mañana residents cited earlier this year, Bruce said “Many people who move here don’t know they have to subscribe.”

Bruce said ambulance service is separate and was not something the committee looked into.

While some homeowners’ insurance policies require subscribing to Rural/Metro as a condition of coverage, Bruce said the deficiencies of the current system included costs not being shared equally and Rural/Metro only having three men on a truck, while Daisy Mountain has four. He also said Cave Creek and Carefree are the only two towns not hooked up to the emergency aid system.

Carefree has a master contract with Rural/Metro, which it pays for with sales tax, which Bruce said could prove to be problematic during the current economic downturn.

Daisy Mountain is a fire district which requires annexation into its service area with the cost of service appearing as a property tax on every district property owner’s annual tax bill.
Daisy Mountain bases its tax on the property’s valuation, regardless of the size or whether or not there is a structure on the property.

Rural/Metro bases its fees on the square footage of structures on property, regardless of value, with separate rate structures for commercial, residential and vacant land.

Paradise Valley has made subscribing to Rural/Metro mandatory, by ordinance, which has resulted in approximately 90 percent compliance.

Bruce told council the committee’s recommendation would be to enter into a master contract with the town starting in 2013 and hold a ballot referendum to replace the Spur Cross property tax, which will have expired by then, with a new tax for fire protection service.
He said their recommendation was for a five-year plan and the town would continue using Rural/Metro as its provider.

Bruce said the town could also enter into an IGA with a fire district.

However, the main recommendation would be to ask the voters, said Bruce, adding, “They may not want a property tax. They may like the way it is.”

He reiterrated the benefits of the payment becoming tax deductible and being able to make two annual payments versus one annual payment as with Rural/Metro.

However, the only method available to tax property for fire services is the use of a tax rate times the property’s valuation, constituting a major shift in the way fees are currently calculated, especially for vacant land.

During public comment, Reg Monachino, vice chair of the committee, noted Rural/Metro’s average response time was 4 minutes, thanked both Bruce and the town manager and said, “I cannot support a property tax.”

Monachino said imposing a property tax for fire was a slippery slope that could next lead to a property tax for trash pickup or other such services.

His recommendation was for the town to set aside money each year until it could afford to make a decision.

Janet Mohr said, as a realtor, she always advises the people she sells homes to they need to subscribe to Rural/Metro. However, she said, “This has always bothered me that we don’t have fire service.”

Charles Spitzer stated one of the major findings is people are adults and adults make decisions and suggested a letter be sent to the lienholders of property owners who were not Rural/Metro subscribers.

He said, “We don’t need a referendum. The people already voted, with their wallets … 50 percent don’t subscribe.”

Adam Trenk said he thought property tax was the way to go and it was a good idea to phase it in when Spur Cross was done.

To clarify some of the comments made, Kraetz said the town does have fire service and the current fire station is very well situated to meet the needs of the town.

Kraetz also stated, “The mutual aid system we have right now, I get support. Resources are not a problem – we get what we need.”

Bruce mentioned, and Kraetz has previously acknowledged, the town will eventually need a new fire station to service the annexation area.

Kraetz said he has suggested to Rural/Metro that it make monthly and/or quarterly billing available to its subscribers, which he believes would encourage more property owners to subscribe.

Councilman Thomas McGuire’s motion to place the committee’s recommendations on a future council agenda for further discussion and consideration passed by a vote of 5-2 with Councilwoman Grace Meeth and Mayor Vincent Francia dissenting.

Photo: Rural/Metro Fire Battalion Chief John Kraetz said he has made the suggestion to Rural/Metro to offer its subscribers monthly and/or quarterly payment options in addition to its current annual billing for a lump-sum payment, as a way to encourage more property owners to voluntarily subscribe.
Photo by Linda Bentley