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Coverage Kerfuffle

Golder Ranch Fire faces an uphill battle to annex a large chunk of the foothills

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The Golder Ranch Fire District has a fight on its hands—and its opponents appear more than ready for a tussle.

Eleven months after setting its sights on annexing a chunk of the Catalina Foothills—a move that was met with nearly unanimous dissent (see "Competing Protectors," Dec. 8, 2011)—Golder Ranch has scrapped that plan, and instead is pursuing an area nearly twice as large.

Judging by the reactions of those in attendance at a public meeting on Monday night, Oct. 22, more than twice as many people are unhappy with the new plan.

Golder Ranch wants to annex roughly 4,400 properties between First Avenue and Campbell Avenue, extending from the southeast edge of its existing boundary down to the Tucson city limits along River Road. More than 5,000 people live in the proposed area, which also includes the La Encantada shopping center and the Westward Look Resort.

More than 200 prospective future district members spent several hours in a ballroom at the Westward Look voicing their displeasure with the annexation; some did not even wait until the question-and-answer period to speak up.

Some speakers even questioned the date and time of the meeting, which coincided with the final presidential debate, as an attempt by Golder Ranch to manipulate the makeup of the crowd.

After nearly three hours of mostly negative response from the audience, Golder Ranch's governing board voted 4-0 to pursue the annexation.

"I do think that as part of the democratic process here, we, as elected officials, need to make sure everyone is fully informed," board member Mark Clark said. "I don't think what we heard ... is a representation of the entire body."

The area in question is currently served by the Rural/Metro Fire Department, a private provider that charges an annual subscription for landowners based on a home's square footage. Golder Ranch, like other fire districts, is funded via property taxes based on a home's secondary assessed value.

Land in the annexation area has a 2012 valuation of more than $196 million, which could generate the district more than $3.4 million in annual revenue. Golder Ranch currently charges $1.75 per $100 of assessed value, which on an average foothills home would come to about $670 per year.

That same homeowner pays about $525 per year for coverage from Rural/Metro.

Golder Ranch officials say the annexation is not a money issue, despite the large revenue windfall that would come with it.

"I don't want to ground this conversation on price; we're not here about price," Golder assistant chief John Sullivan told the crowd.

Instead, they say, the move is part of a further effort to regionalize fire protection under the umbrella of multiple entities working together. Sullivan said nearly all of the Phoenix metro area is on a regional network of fire coverage, all tax-funded, with automatic-aid agreements between the numerous entities to provide assistance when needed.

"All those tax-paid organizations ... have a common thread," Sullivan said. "Here in Pima County, we don't have that yet."

Golder has automatic-aid agreements with the Northwest Fire District and the Tucson Fire Department, as well as others, but doesn't with Rural/Metro or the Mountain Vista Fire District, which covers an area west of the proposed annexation area, but contracts with Rural/Metro for firefighters.

"Unfortunately, I can't say we'd (currently) come automatically into the foothills," Sullivan said.

The automatic-aid and regional-effort claims irk annexation resident Amy Hernandez, an attorney who is opposed to the push. She says money is the only real issue, and wishes Golder Ranch would be honest about that.

"They cloak it in a public-safety issue, when it's not," Hernandez said. "It's a money issue. It's just like my kids, who try to lie to me: Just tell me the truth, and we can just talk mano y mano."

Hernandez said the automatic-aid issue is as much about ego as it is about the fact that Rural/Metro and Golder Ranch use different dispatch systems, and she points to the mass shooting at the Safeway in January 2011 as a prime example.

"My best friend got shot in that," Hernandez said, noting that Northwest Fire turned down assistance from Mountain Vista and Rural/Metro in favor of Golder Ranch, possibly delaying response.

For recent foothills arrivals Christy and Dray Sterling, money isn't the main concern. They just want to know they're getting good service. Though residents of the annexation area only since February, so far they've had no issues with Rural/Metro.

"We would pay more if they (Golder Ranch) could prove their service was better," Dray Sterling said. "We've had very good service from Rural/Metro."

Golder Ranch got the ball rolling on annexation of the central part of the proposed area, about seven square miles, last December, but never formally circulated petitions. The district had one year to acquire signatures from a majority of property owners and a majority of assessed value, per state law, but Sullivan said friction from many homeowners' associations prevented the district from going further.

Evidence of such opposition can be seen on a website, www.foothillscitizensforfiresafety.com, formed by five foothills homeowners' associations representing nearly 1,100 land parcels.

Golder's governing board scrapped the first plan, but not because of dissent, district spokesman Josh Hurguy said. The district instead chose to pursue a larger area after hearing concerns from foothills residents who said the first acquisition would mean forcing Rural/Metro to need to cover the southern area from a fire station other than the one it currently operates on Skyline Drive, he said.

That station and coverage issue was brought up at the start of the first annexation effort, but was not addressed by Golder Ranch until 10 months later, said Michael Racy, a lobbyist who represents Rural/Metro.

Racy said he believes the original annexation would have been overwhelmingly shot down, and is surprised Golder Ranch continues to push for the area, considering the reputation the foothills has for fighting off annexation efforts.

"They've got the fallout from all of those city of Tucson annexation tries to deal with, and I don't think they realized that," Racy said.

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