Ariz. fire districts raise alarm on money woes
Bryan Jeffries, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, said districts have staffing issues but lack city departments' robust sales tax revenue and generous aid packages
East Valley Tribune
MESA, Ariz. — Hikers, boaters, horseback riders and even BASE jumpers get into dangerous situations in the national forest just outside Mesa and just like in the city, emergency responders rush to the scene to help.
While the EMTs who fish people off ledges and shock hearts in the backcountry have the same qualifications as rescuers inside town limits, there's often a subtle difference: the words "fire district" rather than "fire department" are emblazoned on their uniforms and vehicles.
The distinction between a fire department and fire district is not obvious, but local firefighters say it means a lot for access to resources.
Fire districts are special taxing districts formed by voters to add fire and medical service in places where none exists — often in unincorporated communities or smaller cities and towns. They are funded by secondary property taxes and governed by local boards of directors.
Fire departments, on the other hand, are part of a city or town government, and are funded from city coffers. In recent years, city budgets have benefitted from robust sales tax revenue and generous aid packages connected to the pandemic.
Bryan Jeffries, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, said fire districts have been missing out on the boom times while dealing with extra burdens.
In the midst of COVID, climate change and economic growth, costs and calls for service are increasing while fire districts' revenue is staying comparatively flat, slowly pushing some fire districts to the brink, he said.
"Fire districts are in a total crisis. We have myriads of our fire districts out there that are running dangerously low staffing levels, and those staffing levels make a dramatic difference on response times," Jeffries said.
About 2,500 of Arizona's 7,500 professional firefighters work for the state's 154 fire districts. While smaller than the state's municipal fire departments in terms of people and budgets, fire districts play an outsized role in responding to calls in rural areas where Arizonans go to play or travel.
The Superstition Fire & Medical District, which covers 70 square miles east of Mesa and includes Canyon Lake, the Superstition Mountains and the U.S. 60 corridor, is feeling recent funding limitations.
SFMD Chief John Whitney said his firefighters are "phenomenal," but stunted budgets make it hard to hire and train firefighters and update facilities.
"We have some facilities just in unacceptable shape in my opinion," he said.
Whitney previously served with the Scottsdale Fire Department, and he said the difference in resources between fire districts and municipal fire departments is "shocking."
"I would say the districts operate on the bare bones mentality" compared to municipal departments. "You miss out on a lot of the innovations of technology. It's just a different context at the end of the day."
Jeffries blamed a combination of factors for what he views as today's severe underfunding for Arizona's fire districts. He noted that a referendum passed in 2012, Prop 117, capped increases in the taxable value of residential properties at 5% per year.
The resolution passed when property values were still sitting near the bottom of a dip following the Great Recession, Jeffries said, so fire district revenue has been anemic even as real estate values have boomed and service calls increased.
Adding salt to the wound, he added, COVID brought extra hardship to fire districts, but they didn't get direct relief.
"Our districts got slaughtered by COVID, and unlike cities, received no federal relief at all," he said.
Some fire districts have gone to county governments for help covering extra COVID expenses, but not every district has gotten it. Whitney said his district has not received help from Pinal County yet for the $900,000 extra the district spent to meet the demands of the pandemic.
"It's the death by a thousand paper cuts," Whitney said of increased costs and stagnant revenue. "Even with the housing market the way it is, I've heard of districts that have had decreases in their net assessed value ... It's just constantly struggling just to maintain with the growth."
Fire districts have a few levers to pull to compensate for budget strains, including raising their property tax rates up to 3.25% and requesting bond approval for capital improvements.
But advocates say if assessed property values stay low compared to a district's demand for service, these measures provide limited help.
After years of discouraging efforts to increase fire district funding, the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona wants to put a .1% state-wide sales tax to fund fire districts on the next ballot as an initiative.
Jeffries estimated the tax increase, which would sunset after 20 years, would net $150 million to $200 million annually for fire districts.
Jeffries said the PFFA, which represents firefighters in both departments and districts, is going to bat for the fire districts "because we all work together, (and) as firefighters we care about our citizens regardless of what city or county they reside in."
PFFA filed an initiative petition with the Arizona Secretary of State in October, but Jeffries said the group hopes the Legislature will vote to put the measure on the next November ballot.
"Thresholds to get on the ballot are so high," Jeffries said of the 237,000 signatures needed to put the Arizona Fire District Safety Act on the ballot. "That is a tough, tough number to get to."
But the legislative route is not easy, either.
Legislators are "less likely to pass a tax measure in an election year," he said, but "when it comes to public safety, we think that politics should be pushed aside."
The measure, currently championed by Glendale's Sen. Paul Boyer (District-20), received a boost last month when it passed the Senate's Committee on Land, Agriculture & Rural Affairs.
At the March 21 hearing, Aimee Yentes, vice president of the Arizona Free Enterprise Club and vice mayor of Gilbert, argued against the legislature putting the sales tax on the ballot.
Among her reasons, Yentes said there would be no oversight over how fire districts spend the new sales tax revenue other than their local boards. She viewed that as bad financial management and a taxation without representation issue.
She also thought it was bad precedent to help fire districts create a new tax, and it might encourage other groups to try the same. Finally, she said the Legislature should reserve the power of taxation for legislators, rather than the voters of Arizona through direct elections.
But most of the committee was sympathetic to the problem, with some legislators sharing personal stories of extremely long emergency response times in rural areas.
The committee passed the resolution to add the Fire District Safety Act to the next initiative election with one member absent and another voting present, and the bill now heads to the Arizona House Rules Committee.
For Jeffries, the extra penny on a $10 meal is a good investment.
"Not having adequate staffing has a dramatic impact on mortality" in fire and medical responses, he said, noting that fire districts play a role in battling wildland fires, which are a growing hazard.
"The math on our business just doesn't work," he said. "No matter where you live in the state of Arizona, you likely travel through, visit, do business with, or have family in an area that's covered by a fire district."
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