Mountain Vista Fire District officials say concerns voiced by residents at a recent fire board meeting about a fire station closing, and the purchase of land and vehicles, are misplaced.
Scott Butler, Mountain Vista administrative chief, said one issue raised was the potential closing of a Rural/Metro fire station on Magee Road, just west of Oracle Road.
Mountain Vista contracts with Rural/Metro, leasing stations, vehicles, personnel and equipment to provide fire protection within the Mountain Vista district. Mountain Vista does not currently own any fire apparatus, equipment or stations.
"At one time, we had four Rural/Metro stations providing service to us, but currently it's only two," Butler said. "When Rural/Metro signed an agreement with Golder Ranch Fire District to transition fire protection for properties in the town of Oro Valley to Golder Ranch, that agreement called for Rural/Metro to close two of their stations. The station on Magee will be one of those to close."
In response, Earle Ruhnke, chairman of the fire district's board of directors, said Mountain Vista purchased 3.3 acres on Magee Road a half-mile west of the Rural/Metro fire station so the district could construct its own station. Cost of the land is $500,000, he said, and the district expects to close on the property by mid-January.
Butler said the district studied what was needed in terms of space and equipment, and determined the Magee Road station should be approximately 19,000 square feet and have four full bays that could accommodate eight vehicles. He noted those estimates are preliminary, and might be modified once an architect is hired.
Mountain Vista, which broke ground on its first fire station on Shannon Road Saturday morning (see related story), was formed in November 2008 from a merger of three adjoining fire districts — North Ranch-Linda Vista, Heritage Hills and La Cañada. In 2009, Mountain Vista annexed 320 properties north of Lambert Lane and Thornydale Road, and later in the year annexed property in Oro Valley from Hardy Road south to the town line.
Phil Richardson, a Suffolk Drive resident who lives in the district's most recently annexed area, raised concerns about the land purchase and fire station closing, but now said he's received a satisfactory explanation about the issues.
Another issue he raised involved the potential purchase of two fire engines, at a cost of $480,000 each.
"Why are they buying fire engines they won't be using for a year or two?" he asked.
Butler pointed out the board considered the purchase of the two fire engines because it could save money by purchasing them before Dec. 31, 2009. After that date, diesel engines, including those used in fire trucks, are subject to more stringent federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations, which will add cost to the vehicles. Estimates vary, but some fire apparatus manufacturers quote numbers in the $20,000 to $30,000 range added per vehicle, Butler noted, depending on the type of engine ordered.
However, Mountain Vista did not purchase the vehicles.
"We do have the capital funds well in excess of the purchase price of two vehicles already set aside, so there would be no rate impact," Butler pointed out.
Mountain Vista's tax rate is $1.25 per $100 of secondary assessed valuation, below that of neighboring fire districts.
"We have $1.2 million set aside for the purchase of vehicles and we expect to put another several hundred thousand dollars into capital equipment this year," Butler added.
While Richardson said his questions were answered satisfactorily, he still is worried that no one is watching the activities of the fire board.
"My main concern is the fact that there are few people watching the board and what they are doing," Richardson said. "They fly below the radar screen and do what the law allows them to do, but they're required to let the public know what they are doing and what they are spending."
Richardson said he is trying to organize a group composed of people from all fire districts in southern Arizona, but has not recruited anyone else yet.
Board chair Ruhnke pointed out that all board meetings are public and notices are placed according to law, welcoming district residents to attend.
As for the future, Ruhnke wants to be sure district residents are "totally covered at all times, which is why we're building our own fire houses and plan on purchasing apparatus. That way we own them and if anything happens to the organization we contract with, residents are protected financially."
Ruhnke predicted the Shannon Road fire house will come in under budget because the original cost was $250 a square foot, but with the downturn in construction, current costs are $200 a square foot. He said the district could use the saved funds to purchase equipment.