Voters’ tax defeat leaves fire districts in a bind

Fire Ground Survival is an extensive training through which all the members of the Daisy Mountain Fire District company learn techniques for saving themselves if they become lost or trapped in a life-threatening situation during a fire. “Crews learn many techniques to give them the best preparation for these high-risk/low-frequency events,” a district spokesman said. (Facebook)

State firefighter organizations lobbied the Legislature this year to put a question on the Nov. 8 ballot asking voters to approve a 20-year, 0.1% sales tax that would generate revenue for fire districts across the state.

The Legislature obliged, but in a 52-48% vote — 1,230,042 against to 1,144,495 for — Arizona voters shot down Prop 310, sending fire officials back to the drawing board to address a funding problem they say isn’t going away any time soon.

Firefighters also noted that at the same time as Proposition 310 failed, voters approved another legislative initiative that requires ballot questions posing tax increases to pass with at least a 60% approval.

Approval of Prop 132 by a 50.7% to 49.3% — 1,210,702 votes in favor and 1,176,327 against — means it will be even harder to get a tax passed in the future.

“We were obviously disappointed. Like the air came out of our sails,” Daisy Mountain Fire District Chief Brian Tobin said. “My firefighters worked very hard on their days off to try and get as much education and information out about 310, but we came up short.”

Tobin and Superstition Fire District Chief John Whitney said Arizona’s urban departments also lost with the defeat of 310.

They said Arizona’s robust “automatic mutual aid” system among first responders stands out among states and helps all of the various police and fire departments to function as one large emergency department for the state.

If a five-alarm fire breaks out on the edge of a city, resources from surrounding departments are deployed in an efficient system.

With a more resilient source of funding, Arizona fire districts would have been able to bring more to the table in the mutual aid system.

Fire districts are special taxing districts governed by an elected board that provide fire service to areas where none exists, such as areas not covered by a municipal fire department.

Arizona’s 154 fire districts provide emergency fire and medical service over huge swaths of the state, including major transportation corridors like I-10. In terms of the number of firefighters the districts employ, they aren’t as large of municipal departments.

About a third of the state’s professional firefighters — or about 2,500 of 7,500 — work for districts.

But many of those fire districts, especially those serving the urban-wildland interface, provide fire protection to dynamic areas as residents move into rural areas, recreation and traffic swells, and wildfire risk grows.

In all, the districts employ over 4,000 trained personnel to provide fire, rescue and emergency medical services to roughly 1.5 million Arizona residents every day, protecting over 15,000 square miles from fires and covering 27,000 square miles with emergency medical services.

Outside Mesa, for example, the Superstition Fire and Medical District serves communities east of Meridian Road, Apache Junction and the State Route 60 corridor in Pinal County.

The Daisy Mountain Fire District serves the area north of Phoenix along the busy I-17 corridor as far north as Sunset Point.

“Every weekend it’s a (expletive) show” along the I-17 corridor, Tobin said.

One contemplated project using Prop 310 funds was a fire station at Sunset Point, a major rest area for north-south travelers in the state.

“We’ve just had a need in rural areas that are close to urban areas where people hike, bike and ATV, and we don’t have the technical expertise to respond to those incidents. We rely on our partners to respond to those incidents,” he said.

Tobin said fire districts took a major hit in funding when property values plunged during the Great Recession because property taxes are their main source of revenue. The impact was so significant that many fire districts are still trying to get back to pre-recession levels of service.

Daisy Mountain, for example, has fewer firefighters per capita than it did before the recession, according to Tobin.

“It’s been a very slow process to build back out of that,” Tobin said. “We were hoping to at least get ourselves back up to where we were before that time” with Prop 310 funding.

Tobin said there was “excitement” in the department about some of the lifesaving equipment it could buy with the funding. An example, he said, is telehealth equipment on ambulances that would allow medics to coordinate with doctors more closely on long rides to hospitals.

Unlike municipal departments, fire districts say they are especially challenged because they are almost totally dependent on property taxes.

They saw Prop 310 as a way to diversify funding streams.

Whitney said that because the state limits annual increases in property valuations for taxation, his district has only just now crawled back to its funding levels of 10 years ago even though call volume has seen a “dramatic jump” in recent years.

“At the end of the day, we don’t have access to state shared revenue, we don’t have sales taxes, we don’t have all the different mechanisms available to municipal fire departments,” Whitney said.

“So the citizens of the community continue to shoulder the burden for anyone who uses the services of the district,” he said.

Whitney was disappointed by the defeat of Prop 310, but he said he isn’t angry at voters and knows they still support their firefighters.

“We understand that there’s a lot of fear about recession and inflation, and people are very conscientious right now about what they’re spending in taxes,” Whitney said. “We understood the challenges all along.”

Whitney thinks the task of convincing voters was made harder by the complexity of the topic and confusion about the difference between fire districts and other fire departments.

With costs and call volumes still growing for fire districts, what’s next after Prop 310’s failure?

“Plan B is to reconvene the stakeholders and find our way down to the state leadership and try to figure out a solution, whether that’s through surplus funds, … alternative funding mechanisms, something to help offset,” Whitney said.

Whitney predicted that in the short term, many fire district property owners will see increases in their fire service levies. Last year, the Legislature raised the cap on these levies as part of a larger tax reform package.

The tax reform lowered the state’s commercial property tax rate but approved a phased increased in the maximum levy that local fire district boards can set and to help districts compensate for lost revenue from commercial owners.

The previous cap was 3.25% and will go up to 3.75% by tax year 2024.

Whitney said the change will help, but districts don’t like having to hike levies.

“The problem is most of the citizens don’t know about the commercial decrease. All they see is us raising their taxes,” Whitney said. “Great, then we get to take the beating for that.”

“My district board chose not to increase the level,” Tobin said, because the increased revenue from higher property valuations will be just enough to cover recent cost increases.