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Bookie: Fire districts need community support


The Arizona Fire & Medical Authority is comprised of three regional fire districts that are legally combined under a common “umbrella,” or joint powers authority, known as AFMA.

AFMA is efficiently managed by allowing each local district’s board to maintain and elevate levels of service to meet the needs of each of the fire districts. They fund the Authority with their individual tax levies, but with the advantage of the shared Authority-wide coverage for manpower and equipment based on the overall service needs, as determined by the fire chief and staff and approved by the AFMA governing board.

AFMA earned the highest Insurance Service Organization’s rating of 1. Within the entire USA, there are fewer than 400 communities enjoying the highest fire rating of 1. AFMA was the first fire department in Arizona to earn the ISO 1 rating. Additionally, they have earned accredited status from the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. Only nine total communities are served by accredited agencies, and in the entire country only 301 fire departments and associations have earned this gold standard.

Recent budget considerations with this year’s 10% inflation in Arizona have been exhaustingly challenging to the residents as well as to our AFMA staff and board members. Many of the challenges are due in large part to the rapid cost increases and supply inventory limitations that arrived in the post-COVID economic climate. For example, a basic $500,000 fire engine from just five years ago now costs more than $850,000, with delivery times routinely doubling to a forecasted 4-year delivery period. Most of us can easily see the stress placed on capital budgets when our obligated funds are tied up for that long.

Unlike all of Arizona’s cities and municipalities, Arizona fire districts receive no funding from any state sales taxes! In addition, the Arizona Legislature reduced the corporate tax rate from 18% to the current 16%, and that percentage may be reduced further in the coming year. In recent years, the massive commercial and utilities company property taxes were decreased by the state legislature of Arizona. This lays the burden on the homeowners’ taxes, forcing them to go way up!

Proposition 310 was presented to the voters of Arizona but was defeated in the 2022 election. This ballot proposition would have, for the first time, allowed fire districts to gain a sliver of state tax monies to help offset their reliance on real estate taxes. The defeat left all of the fire districts to rely on only three sources of funding each year — local property taxes, ambulance billing and unpredictable grants. For nearly a decade the North County Fire and Medical District kept our local net-assessed value property tax at $2.86. During the post 2008 economic recovery, even as property owners enjoyed an amazing increase in their property values, there was no increase. For 10 years there have been no increase in the property tax rate in Sun City West or in our North County area. In 2021 we were forced to increase the tax by five cents per hundred of net-assessed value, to $2.91 due in large part to Medicare lowering payments for ambulance service. This is used by a majority of our district residents, thus creating an approximately $1 million shortfall.

Simultaneously there was a drastically reduced pool of available EMTs and paramedics available for hire, a more than 10% inflation on medical supplies, equipment, fuel, etc., and there were firefighters’ competitive wage pressures. This fiscal year 2023-24 we are facing more severe challenges — a 30% capital cost increase, and additional payment pressures from our obligated long-term capital bonds, and increased labor costs with our new competitive Firefighter wages. After long and arduous deliberation, NCFMD voted to increase its tax rate by 17 cents to $3.08, to sustainably fund and maintain our fire services. This rise translates to an increase of about $34 annually to the average net property value in NCFMD. Our partner districts (South County and Buckeye Valley) are also facing these severe pressures and have raised their rates by 17 cents and 12 cents, respectively, as well.

It is important to point out that the increase to the NCFMD tax is based, again, on net-assessed value, not full cash value, meaning what the county assessor reports your house is worth, not your local realtor. While we are glad to say our North County tax rate is still the lowest, we are not satisfied with the effect of the increases on ourselves or our partner districts. We are committed to reinvigorating our efforts to request and obtain additional revenue streams from the state, tribal and federal government entities to help offset future increases. AFMA will continue to seek grants and will maintain, foster and establish positive relationships with state and national legislative leaders.

Please join with us as we engage our legislative partners, neighboring communities and Maricopa County officials to create a more equitable tax distribution for our homeowners. In closing, to reduce the ever-increasing tax burden shift onto residential taxes and the rising costs from inflation, we are urging our community members to support our efforts and help create positive solutions for your fire authority’s financial challenges.

We’d like to invite our readers to submit their civil comments, pro or con, on this issue. Email AZOpinions@iniusa.org.