Print VVFD debates a unified authority
Written by Greg Ruland   
Friday, 22 July 2011 12:00

Hard economic times often require local fire districts to make budget cuts and find ways to provide equivalent services with less money, according to Gerald Shanks, Verde Valley Fire District Board chairman.

Legislation signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer in April is one way fire departments and districts might respond to decreasing revenues. The new law makes it easier for them to merge and share administrative costs, Shanks said, speaking to a gathering of about 30 people at the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting Thursday, July 14.

VVFD Board of Directors takes no position on the merger idea at this time, Shanks said, but his experience in the Verde Valley going back to the 1990s shows how such mergers can both increase services and reduce costs.

“I speak only for myself, not the board,” Shanks said.

In 1996, a three-year study, Upper Verde Valley Emergency Services Consolidation Study Report, concluded consolidation of local fire districts and departments would be best for residents, but at the time, there was not legislation that would allow it to happen, he said.

The new law removes this obstacle.

Senate Bill 1361 streamlines the process for creation of a fire authority. In a fire authority, each entity retains its same governing board, which continues to control the budget and tax rate.

A fire authority acts like a large fire district. The main savings comes from reducing administrative positions. For example, one person would do payroll for all districts, rather than each district hiring their own payroll officer.

Michele Bradley/Larson Newspapers Verde Valley Fire District Governing Board member Gerald Shanks addresses members of the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce during a breakfast at Verde Valley Medical Center on Thursday, July 14. Shanks, who said he represented only himself, broached the potential benefits of Verde Valley fire districts combining some of their expenses under the umbrella of a regional fire authority.Another advantage is that property tax does not have to be used. The cities could continue to use sales tax to fund their fire departments under a fire authority, while districts could continue to rely on property tax.

“The law is very flexible,” Shanks said.

Each department would retain its own capital reserve accounts, buildings and equipment. Because the fire authority is created through an intergovernmental agreement, any department can resign from the fire authority if it wishes to do so.

Fire authority policies would be handled by a joint powers board made up of representative from each member department or district.

There would probably not be cost savings in the first year, but as fire chiefs and administrative staff leave, or are terminated due to budget restraints, the savings would be realized, Shanks said.

Cottonwood Fire Department Fire Chief Mike Casson, who attended the meeting, said there are not currently any discussions under way between the city and area fire districts about the possibility of a fire authority.

Districts and municipalities already participate in an intergovernmental agreement for the rendering of mutual aid when a large fire or multiple fires require one fire department or district to call for additional emergency equipment and personnel from another, Casson said.

The fire authority idea is most active in Pinal County, where several fire districts with huge territories are searching for ways to cut costs but maintain services, he said.

“At some point, we’re going to have to sit down and talk about this,” Shanks said. “In my opinion, this is where we’re heading with fire service across the state.”