BY LINDA BENTLEY | FEBRUARY 22, 2012
Citizens continue to fan flames as fire district heats up
‘It’s not fair for 54 percent to be paying for the rest who don’t pay’
Photos by Linda Bentley
RIO VERDE – The Rio Verde Foothills Fire District (RVFFD) organizing board hosted a community meeting at the Rio Verde Community Center on Tuesday evening, which board member Carmela Lizzo said was to provide an accurate overview of the fire district.
Lizzo introduced herself as a 17-year resident who owns a corporate event planning company.
Asking people to act in a respectful manner, Lizzo indicated they would dispel the “Rural/Metro conspiracy” and address “newspaper stories.”
Lizzo stated the board was selected during an August meeting, which was attended by about 150 people. When they learned the third member of the organizing board was not a citizen, Lizzo said she was contacted to serve on the board because she received the fourth highest number of votes.
Board member Bashi Buba-Doyle introduced herself as a former homicide prosecutor from Philidelphia, rather than as a lawyer, since she indicated lawyers do not have such a great reputation.
Buba expressed interest in the fire district because she personally would like to have emergency medical service.
Board member Joe Blanchette, a retired IT executive, said his homeowner’s insurance went up recently because the nearest fire station is 14 miles away.
He said his elderly father fell and broke his hip and it would have been nice to have a closer fire station that could have responded.
“I believe in this,” said Blanchette. “I don’t believe this will cause us to lose any of our rural lifestyle.”
John Flynn (l), a paid lobbyist for the Arizona Fire District Association (AFDA), said there was no provision in Arizona statutes for counties to provide fire service.
In 2008, the AFDA was instrumental in getting legislation passed to allow equestrian property owners in county island areas that did not want to annex into the adjacent municipalities to form county island fire districts.
Stating the petition is the landowner’s vote, Flynn said it gives all property owners a voice rather than allowing only registered voters to have a say. If it were to go to a vote, it would exclude those not registered to vote in the district, including vacant and absentee land owners.
Lizzo told the audience the Rio Verde Fire District, which is adjacent to the southeast boundary of the proposed RVFFD, is supportive of them forming a fire district because their first responsibility is to their taxpayers.
She also said once the fire district is formed, the law requires them to first negotiate with Rural/Metro because it is the company currently servicing the area.
Rural/Metro Fire Chief John Kraetz said Rural/Metro has no desire to pull out of the area after five years but clarified later that statute only allows for contracts of up to five years.
Lizzo said including McDowell Mountain Park within the boundaries is out of their control and required by statute. She stated there was no direct additional cost.
She explained Rural/Metro would not have ambulance service. It would provide emergency medical service but not transport service.
According to Lizzo, the contract numbers are tentative – $1.9 million the first year, which includes start-up costs, including Andrew Chavez’s Black Top Solutions, LLC, dba Black Top Strategies to collect petition signatures and $1.6 million thereafter.
She said if the fire district passes, any unused portion of Rural/Metro subscriptions will be refunded, adding, “It’s not fair for 54 percent to be paying for the rest who don’t pay.”
Lizzo also said instead of waiting 45 minutes, response times will be 4-20 minutes, depending on location.
According to Lizzo, insurance companies “may not cover your loss in the event of fire” and said most homeowner policies have a clause that says homeowners need to take steps to mitigate loss.
However, she informed the crowd approximately 86 percent of Rural/Metro’s calls are for emergency medical.
For an example of cost savings for homeowners if the fire district were to pass, Lizzo used a home with large square footage (3,700 square feet) and low valuation ($33,535), since Rural/Metro’s subscriptions are based on square footage and taxing districts are based on assessed property valuation.
A question from a man in the audience was addressed to Chavez (l) regarding the letter in packets sent out to property owners who lived outside of Rio Verde that stated, “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.”
He asked Chavez, “Don’t you think that’s deceptive?”
Chavez said it was just one sentence taken out of context and stated, “I had no intention of being deceptive. There was a lot more on there.”
Lizzo chimed in, “Everyone is throwing smoke. Yes, you could interpret it that way.”
She said invalid signatures would get tossed and the county was going to verify every signature anyway.
Chavez was then asked to address the civil RICO (Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization) complaint filed against him in Kentucky.
He said RICO charges should be pursued as criminal, not civil, if there’s something to it and there’s not.
Chavez stated there was a pending motion to dismiss and said, “There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be dismissed.”
Court records indicate Chavez’s motion to dismiss is hinged on procedural grounds that the Kenton County Attorney Garry Edmondson lacks standing to sue as an individual.
There doesn’t appear to be any question otherwise that fraud had taken place and signatures were forged on petitions, as evidenced by those persons attesting they did not sign them on sworn affidavits.
A man asked the board and Rural/Metro why they haven’t distanced themselves from Chavez in light of the racketeering charges. Another man pointed out that Chavez and his company have been implicated in other instances where petitions contained fraudulent signatures.
Lizzo said a person is innocent until proven guilty and there were pending dismissal motions.
Buba said she read the pleadings and felt the charges would be dismissed.
Another person asked if everyone in the district was mailed an impact statement.
Flynn said they had not and stated county island fire districts, unlike other special taxing districts, are not required to do impact statements. However, he said they did one anyway and it’s posted on the clerk of the board of supervisors’ website.
Flynn also pointed out regular fire districts must be an all volunteer effort, while county island fire districts may utilize paid petition gatherers.
The tax rate is estimated to be $1.64 per $100 of assessed secondary valuation.
Residences are assessed at the rate of 10 percent, while vacant land is assessed at 16 percent.
And, considering 86 percent of the calls are for emergency medical service, vacant land owners, who will most likely never call for service, will be paying a 60 percent premium to subsidize those who do.
Kraetz said fire districts are not permitted, by law, to own any equipment or property and the tax would pay for service only.
That seemed to stick in the craw of several attendees, who questioned why they would want to pay Rural/Metro (or any other fire service provider) tax dollars to form a fire district and have Rural/Metro retain all the assets.
One person suggested Rural/Metro may want to consider putting a fire station in Rio Verde and continue providing subscription service. He said subscriptions might improve if Rural/Metro showed some initiative.
A woman asked, “What percentage of the property is owned by people who don’t live here?”
Chavez said he believed there were 1,680 unique parcels that have mailing addresses out of state out of the 3,100 or so parcels within the district.
He said there were also approximately 250 properties that were owned by 30 different banks.
According to Lizzo, they have collected approximately 1,300 signatures so far and need another 250-300 signatures to qualify for the district.
And while they have until November to collect a sufficient number of signatures, if a property sells after the owner signs, the signature will be disqualified. So, the longer it takes to collect signatures, the risk of signatures being disqualified increases.
Flyers were being passed out before and after the meeting with instructions on how to remove one’s name from the petitions.
The flyer, which also serves as a form for that purpose, states: “We are interested in Your story, as to how your signature was collected. Please contact Don Scoby at 602-621-0869 if you would like more information or to request notary assistance in removing your signature.”
Anyone may remove their signature from the petition in person at the Office of the Clerk of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Special Taxing Districts, 301 W Jefferson, 10th Floor, Phoenix, AZ 85003 or by mailing a notarized statement to the same address.