BY LINDA BENTLEY | JANUARY 25, 2012
Fire district shenanigans amp up but miss 2012 tax levy deadline
Despite having no structures, a vacant parcel assessed at $300,000 will see a $787 increase in property taxes
RIO VERDE – Andrew Chavez’s Black Top Strategies, the company hired by Rural/Metro Fire to collect signatures to form the Rio Verde Foothills Fire District has yet to register with the Arizona Corporation Commission despite Chavez’s claim several weeks ago his attorney changed the name of his company from Black Top Solutions.
Chavez may have been too busy trying to get the civil racketeering (RICO) charges filed against him by the Kenton County, Kentucky Attorney dismissed on procedural grounds, arguing the county attorney lacks standing to sue.
The RICO complaint against Chavez and his company AZ Petition Partners, LLC alleges contractors working for Chavez in Kentucky forged signatures of two doctors who attested they never signed the petitions and the addresses used on the petitions were those of their medical offices, not their home addresses where they are registered to vote.
Meanwhile, back in Rio Verde, although the fire district organizers have a year to collect signatures from more than 50 percent of the property owners, Chavez has been unable to collect enough signatures to meet the county tax assessor’s extended deadline to levy taxes this year.
However, his signature-gathering efforts, according to one property owner, have stooped to a level he described as “unethical, deceptive and coercive.”
A vacant land owner, who asked not to be identified, received a packet in the mail containing a cover sheet reflecting his parcel number, stating, “Protect Rio Verde will be circulating petitions in an effort to form the Rio Verde Foothills Fire District (RVFFD).”
The next sentence, “If you do not currently reside in the Foothills but own property, you must complete the enclosed petition and mail it back to Black Top Strategies,” stopped him dead in his tracks.
The packet included information put out by proponents of the special taxing district with another letter that opens with: “Your signature is needed on the enclosed petition form to help protect our community through the formation of the Rio Verde Foothills Fire District,” and mentions various reasons for forming the fire district.
However, the entire packet is devoid of an impact statement or any mention of property taxes. It refers people to www.protectrioverde.org, a website created by the proponents of the special taxing district, which goes on about why a fire district is “needed,” why property owners should support it, and with the costs buried in the middle of its Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ).
One of the FAQs asks: “Who is Black Top Strategies? (BTS)”
The answer included: “BTS has recruited and trained 67 Outreach Specialists statewide, 52 who live in Maricopa County. The Outreach Specialists employed by BTS all undergo comprehensive background checks and are fingerprinted and badged through a private security firm. Our field staff members are all college graduates, with half our workforce holding graduate degrees.”
They may be all college graduates, but according to several Rio Verde Foothills residents, they are also liars.
Foothills residents claim these trained BTS “outreach specialists” have told them signing the petition will simply place the question of forming a fire district on the ballot.
That’s a lie. Signing the petition is a property owner’s vote in favor of the special taxing district.
Another FAQ asks: “How are fire districts funded?”
The answer states: “If successful, a secondary property tax will be levied against all parcel owners within the designated boundaries of the Rio Verde Foothills. This ensures all property owners pay their fair share for fire and emergency medical services and differs from the present arrangement where less than half of the property owners subscribe to Rural/Metro.”
This statement is not entirely accurate either.
The McDowell Mountain Preserve, which is owned by Maricopa County, comprises approximately two thirds of the fire district and is not subject to taxes.
Saying all property owners will pay their “fair share” for fire and emergency medical services is disingenuous, since current vacant land owners who subscribe to Rural/Metro will have their taxes increase exponentially in order to subsidize the lower rates paid by those who own developed property.
Also, “emergency medical service” does not include ambulance service from the proposed new fire station but a fire fighter trained as a paramedic.
Considering upwards of 80 percent of all calls are for medical emergencies, there could still be a long wait for an ambulance.
The protectrioverde.org website explains the cost by saying: “The estimated assessment rate will be $1.6405 per one hundred dollars of secondary assessed value. Based on this formula, a home with an assessed value of $300,000 could expect to pay approximately $41 per month for the emergency medical and fire services provided by the Rio Verde Foothills Fire District. This is a very low rate when compared to other area fire districts.”
That $41 per month translates into an annual property tax increase of $492 per year.
While this rate may be low compared to other fire districts, the proposal to form this special taxing district is only a five-year commitment from Rural/Metro.
Some Rio Verde Foothills residents may recall when the fire district was proposed several years ago, the estimated tax increase for a $300,000 home was around $750.
While the formation of a special taxing district would seem to require a great deal of scrutiny, the petitions apparently do not require anyone collecting signatures to attest to personally witnessing the signatures with a notarized statement.
The enclosed letter urging support for the taxing district states, “By signing your petition to support the new fire district, you will protect the Foothills community by supporting improved emergency response times at a better value than the current arrangement where less than half of Foothills property owners pay for subscription service to Rural/Metro.”
Nothing included in the packet says how much any of this will cost the taxpayer.
Vacant land owners will be forced to pay the highest tax increases if a special taxing district is formed compared to the nominal rates Rural/Metro currently charges for vacant land, since vacant land is assessed at 16 percent, while single family residences are assessed at 10 percent.
Despite having no structures, the owner of a vacant parcel assessed at $300,000 will see a $787 increase in property taxes, while a homeowner assessed at the same valuation will pay $492.
Although Rural/Metro claims less than half of the property owners in the Rio Verde area currently contribute to the cost of service, the proponents’ website claims the fire district fee will be “approximately 20 percent lower than your current subscription rate,” stating, “This is because under the fire district model all homeowners share in the cost for fire and EMS services …”
And, while the statute for forming a fire district requires the organizing board members’ information be disclosed, the list of the three organizers included in the packet is devoid of contact information.
Then, there’s the petition itself. Where either “Paid Circulator” or “Volunteer” is supposed to be checked prior to signing is left unmarked.
Anyone interested in withdrawing their name from the petitions may do so in person at the Office of the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors, Special Taxing Districts, 301 W. Jefferson, 10th Floor, Phoenix, AZ 85003, or by mailing a notarized statement to the same address. Be sure to note it is for the Rio Verde Foothills Fire District, and provide your name, address, phone number and parcel number.