BY LINDA BENTLEY | JANUARY 11, 2012
Rural/Metro does 180 over former objections to fire districts
‘This board can raise your property taxes for fire service as much as 8 percent a year without any vote.’
RIO VERDE – A Sahuarita resident, who asked not to be identified, contacted Sonoran News after reading the Jan. 4 front page article: “Rural/Metro pushes to form Rio Verde Fire District” and said, “Rural/Metro seems to have done a 180 on its take of fire districts” and told about Rural/Metro Fire Department’s (RMFD) campaign to keep residents in northern Sahaurita, a town in Pima County about 15 miles south of Tucson, from annexing into the Green Valley Fire District (GVFD) since April 2009.
It was a turf war of major proportions and RMFD campaigned heavily to block the annexation and contested the petition signatures.
When it became clear there were sufficient signatures to annex into the GVFD, RMFD contested the format of the petitions on technicalities, such as font size.
The Pima County Board of Supervisors, with Chairman Ramon Valadez recusing himself because he works for RMFD, deadlocked 2-2, effectively denying the annexation.
One of the flyers RMFD sent out during its hard fought campaign against the annexation of its customers into GVFD said, “If it’s not broken, why fix it? Say ‘NO’ to new property taxes!”
The flyer contained an illustration of big hand, labeled “Green Valley Fire District” holding a citizen upside down shaking the money out of his pockets.
The flyer’s opening paragraph read, “The ongoing (and unexpectedly costly) attempt by GVFD to annex Northern Sahuarita continues. The most recent event? Apparently the signature collection efforts have stalled, so the GVFD Board of Directors authorized hiring professional petition passers with taxpayer money. Yes, really.”
It appears RMFD has decided the same tactics it found offensive down south are perfectly appropriate for the Rio Verde Foothills. However, RMFD is not using taxpayer money. Well, not yet anyway. It did build that reimbursement into its first year budget if the paid signature gatherers can pull it off.
As we mentioned in the Jan. 4 article, RMFD enlisted the services of Andrew Chavez’s Black Top Strategies, LLC, registered with the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) as Black Top Solutions, LLC, to collect signatures.
Although Chavez claims his attorney corrected the name of his company with the ACC to Black Top Strategies, to match the name used on his website, three weeks ago – now four weeks, no changes or pending applications can be found by the ACC.
Additionally, Chavez and his other company, AZ Petition Partners, LLC, are defendants in a civil racketeering complaint filed by the Kenton County Attorney in Kentucky for fraudulently signing names on petitions unbeknownst to the persons whose names were used.
Meanwhile, Sonoran News has received phone calls and e-mails from a number of Rio Verde residents, asking how they can withdraw their names from the petitions and offering opinions both for and against the formation of the district.
One claimed the proposed fire station will reduce response times to approximately 10 minutes, the annual cost per household will be less than what subscribers are currently paying RMFD and homeowners insurance rates will decrease.
The key word here is homeowners.
What about the vacant land owners?
They’re the ones who will be subsidizing the reduced rates for homeowners since taxes are always based on valuation.
It wasn’t that long ago that Rio Verde Foothills residents were annexed into the Cave Creek Unified School District, which vastly increased property taxes.
Looking at a 150-acre parcel within the boundaries of the proposed fire district, property taxes have skyrocketed from $7,651 in 2003 to $23,861 in 2011, most of which can be attributed to annexation into the school district, despite the fact vacant parcels do not send children to school.
That same parcel, which had a Full Cash Value of $2,950,000 in 2011 and an assessed valuation of $472,000 (vacant land is assessed at 16 percent), would have an estimated increase of $7,552 (based on $1.61 per $100 valuation) in tax liability to pay for the fire district, despite the fact the property contains no structures and has no people to call for emergency medical services.
In fact, the property owners live out of state.
Another long-time Rio Verde property owner said it made far more sense to him to form a water district before forming a fire district.
That’s another special taxing district that been tried and failed in the area more than once.
RMFD’s flyer campaigning against the GVFD in Sahuarita highlighted what it said were the “Top 10 false statements made by GVFD,” including:
“Property taxes will go down if you sign with GVFD.”
RMFD claimed “the real truth” was: “Your property taxes will increase! If annexed, you will have to pay on average $200-$400 or more depending on your home’s assessed valuation.”
“You have a voice with a government elected board.”
RMFD claimed “the real truth” was: “This board can raise your property taxes for fire service as much as 8 percent a year without any vote.”
Last but not least, RMFD said, “Make sure you know the truth. If you feel you’ve been misled and want to withdraw your signature, please call …”
RMFD’s tactics in Sahuarita may have backfired.
Dan Shearer, editor of The Sahuarita Sun, in an August 16, 2011 editorial, wrote, “It looks like the 35 percent of northern Sahuarita residents who don’t get Rural/Metro Fire coverage are going to have some company. Plenty of it.”
He said comments posted on their website indicated frustrated residents simply would not renew their subscriptions to RMFD.
Addressing the GVFD annexation in November 2010, Shearer wrote, “As with many political campaigns, truth often is the first casualty. There’s a lot at stake, and most people are quick to believe whatever they’re told … This issue is important; research the facts and ask a lot of questions.”
Sonoran News spoke to Rebecca Rees, management analyst, special tax districts, at the Office of the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors, who said she too has received calls and e-mails from Rio Verde residents asking how to withdraw their names from the petitions. In fact, she received one such e-mail while we were on the phone.
She pointed us to A.R.S. §19-113, which states:
A. A person who has signed a petition prescribed by statute for any candidate nomination, initiative, referendum or formation or modification of a county, municipality or district may withdraw the person's signature from the petition not later than 5:00 p.m. on the date the petition containing the person's signature is actually filed. A person who has signed a recall petition may withdraw the person's signature from the petition not later than 5:00 p.m. on the date the petition containing the person's signature is actually submitted for verification pursuant to section 19-203.
B. To withdraw a petition signature, a person may do any of the following:
1. Verify the withdrawal by signing a simple statement of intent to withdraw at the office
of the receiving officer.
2. Mail a signed, notarized statement of intent to withdraw to the receiving officer.
3. Draw a line through the signature and printed name on the petition.
C. A signature withdrawn pursuant to subsection B of this section and received by the receiving officer within the time provided for in subsection A of this section shall not be counted in determining the legal sufficiency of the petition.
D. A person who knowingly gives or receives money or any other thing of value for signing a statement of signature withdrawal pursuant to subsection B of this section is guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor.
The withdrawal statement, referencing the Rio Verde Foothills County Island Fire District, may be made in person or via a notarized statement mailed to:
Office of the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors
301 W. Jefferson, 10th Floor
Phoenix, AZ 85003
Another Rio Verde resident asked how signatures were verified since property owners aren’t necessarily registered voters.
According to Rees, all the signatures are verified against the signed property deeds at the county assessor’s office.