While being accused of making good on political payoffs, the Oro Valley Town Council voted 5 to 2 in favor of annexing the Town Hall campus into the Golder Ranch Fire District during its regular meeting July 21.
The agenda item to consider and possibly take action toward the annexation of the campus was requested to be put on the agenda by Councilmember Conny Culver with support from Council-member Helen Dankwerth. Mayor Paul Loomis said after an original request to consider the annexation, discussion of the item was scheduled as a study session, but after a July 17 council retreat Councilmembers Culver and Dankwerth again requested the item be put on the regular agenda.
Councilmember Kenneth "K.C." Carter, voting against the annexation along with Loomis, said the action was "hurried in" without telling anyone and he thought moving forward with any action at the July 21 meeting did not give the people a chance to respond to the decision.
"This is not the way we do business," he said.
Carter said moving to make GRFD the service provider for Town Hall is "damn disgusting to me." He said he felt it was a purely political move, calling it "a political payoff" and said he could not believe the council would make this move to "destroy another fire department." Such action, he said, was pitting the two fire service providers against each other, in an effort to put the other out of business.
During the election campaign earlier this year, four of the five new council members publicly supported Golder Ranch Fire District as their choice for fire service in the town. Only Carter said he would like to give both providers a chance to meet town performance standards.
Chris Pendleton, acting fire chief of Rural/Metro Fire Corp., said at the meeting he was "blind-sided" by the council's intentions to annex Town Hall, after reading about the possible action in the Northwest EXPLORER.
He said he was "shocked and confused" by the move, as Rural/Metro provides fire protection free of charge to 40 parcels owned by Oro Valley, including parks and Town Hall.
He said fire protection is an expensive business, and further annexation by Golder Ranch "takes away the ability" for Rural/Metro to continue to provide service to the town. Rural/Metro operates on funds collected through customer subscriptions while Golder Ranch collects money through taxes based on property values.
Pendleton asked the council what the town's future plans were in regards to fire service so the company could "plan accordingly."
"Should we continue with plans to build a station?" he asked, adding that the company would like to work with the town in whatever they choose, whether that be to continue with two fire providers, form its own Oro Valley Fire Department or allow Golder Ranch to annex the entire town. He said he asked that whatever happen, it not be "checkerboarded."
Members of council voting in favor of the annexation defended their positions against Carter's comments, citing a recent Insurance Service Offices rating placing Golder Ranch in the top 2 percent of municipal fire districts and departments in the nation as their primary reason for wanting to make the switch.
Culver said it was a matter of choosing "the best" service available for the town staff and residents visiting the Town Hall campus.
Dankwerth said she "made no political promises" during her campaign and "have absolutely no political payback."
Councilmember Terry Parish also said his vote was in no way a political one, saying "the only political part" of the process was that "it was attempted to be kept off the agenda."
Both Councilmember Barry Gillaspie and Vice Mayor Paula Abbott said they felt their intergity had been challenged by the comments made during the meeting.
Abbott pointed out she was not running for a seat this year and was making her decision based on what she felt was best for the health and safety of the people at Town Hall.
Offering a legal opinion on the issue, Town Attorney Mark Langlitz said the council should consider first and foremost the response times of the two organizations and choose the provider with the lesser response time, if there is a significant difference. Neither provider was able to quote a response time from its station to Town Hall. However, the distance in mileage from a Golder Ranch fire station is greater, as illustrated by a map shown to the council. The closest department is 2.97 miles away while the closest Rural/Metro station is 2.71 miles away.
"If that is the lone factor, we are short-sighted at best," Parish said in response to the almost three-tenths of a mile difference.
Pendleton said Rural/Metro plans to build a new station a half mile from Town Hall within the next year, which would significantly reduce response time.
However, Culver said the company plans to do so by leasing a building, with the town as a back up lessee, an issue that has not yet been brought before the council for a vote.
Golder Ranch Fire District Chief John Fink also could not provide an exact response time, but said the district is able to meet the town's newly adopted fire standards requiring a five to six minute response time from the time a call is received. The standards also were adopted during the July 21 meeting.
Fink also said GRFD plans to build more stations as the district continues to annex in order to provide the same level of service they are giving to those currently receiving their service. He said he has looked at potential sites for a new station as well.
Mayor Loomis asked town staff what is typical of government entities in an annexation, saying it is his understanding that such bodies usually "stay neutral" in such an issue. He said he would prefer to handle it as such and if Golder Ranch moved to annex an area that included Town Hall, then the Town Hall provider could change. He said in that way, the people could have a say.
But the council chose to move forward with the annexation request, regardless of the mayor's preference. Under Arizona law, individual property owners may request to have land included in a fire district by submittal of a letter stating the request. The council directed such a letter be generated by its vote at that meeting.
"This does not eliminate the overall issue of fire service in this town," Loomis said. "Although it will change Rural/Metro's perspective, I suspect."
In other business, several members of the community turned out to the meeting in response to statements made at a July 7 meeting in regards to moving the town's public works yard.
At the meeting, the council rejected a proposal to purchase a 8.96-acre parcel on Oracle Road at Calle Concordia on which to move the yard.
During public discussion several residents brought up the possibility that the Naranja Town Site be reconsidered as a possible relocation site for the yard because the town already owns the land and would not have to find money for property acquisition. The town has been sued by members living near the current site.
Dankwerth said she had recently toured the Naranja Town Site and thought there could be an area there worth investigating further.
Residents living near the site, spurred on by equipment currently located at the Town Site, expressed their anger that using the Town Site for town facilities be brought back up at the July 21 meeting. Residents said the site was promised for park and recreation facilities and should not be used for anything else.
Resident Robert Cozad referred to "equipment being stored kind of surreptitiously" on the Naranja site as reason for suspecting the town might be moving forward with public works yard relocation plans.
Town Manager Chuck Sweet explained to the audience that the Naranja Town Site currently is being used as a "staging area" for Mercury Construction, the reclaimed water system contractor being used by the Oro Valley Water Utility.
Sweet said the site will be used for about six months by the company to keep the equipment out of the public right-of-way while it works on installing the system.
He read from a flyer placed at the back of the room for those in attendance which stated "the acquisition, planning and eventual development of the Naranja Town Site has always been an open process involving the entire community, including surrounding neighborhoods" and the town intends to continue.