Editor’s Note: Sun City Fire and Medical Department Chief Mike Thompson offered additional information regarding a portion of a story in the Oct. 19, 2016 Sun City Independent about the fire district’s proposed bond on the Nov. 8 general election ballot. He also answered a resident who was a source in the same story who expressed concern about plans for the bond funds.
I was quoted as saying that last year was the first increase in property taxes and that we are still not at the level we were in revenue in 2008. I have received several calls from irritated citizens, stating that property taxes have gone up every year.
To set the record straight, Sun City lost 48 percent of its value between 2008 and 2014. With the voter approved passage of Proposition 117 we were limited to a maximum of 5 percent growth per year to property valuations, with an artificial tax cap of $3.25 per $100 of assessed valuation on the secondary property value. In 2015 that valuation was changed to primary valuation, which is the lesser of the two valuations. As a result of proposition 117 in fiscal 2014 -15 the fire department realized a 4 percent increase and that was on secondary valuation. In fiscal 2015-16 that rate was adjusted to primary valuation and the fire department realized a 2.99 percent increase in valuation.
This year (and this is what I was quoting) was the first year we realized our first full tax increase based on primary valuation, which was calculated at 3.84 percent. Doing the math, the Sun City Fire and Medical Department over a three-year period realized 10.83 percent of what should have been 15 percent if the county allowed 5 percent increase per year as dictated by proposition 117.
This, however, is not the case as they tend not to give 5 percent per year, but calculate it in a manner that states you get a certain percentage based on valuations, but that it may not exceed 5 percent per year. You are not necessarily guaranteed 5 percent per year. Based on these figures and future projections, it will take the fire department 18-20 years to get back to the budget figures that were realized in fiscal 2008-09.
My statement was that this fiscal year we saw the first increase in our budget versus the decreases that we had seen between fiscal years 2008 and 2015, meaning we are starting to climb out from the setback of the 2008 economic recession. As a result of that recession we lost 16 positions and shut one front-line unit in Sun City, severely hindering our ability to supply required services. Starting in 2008, the Sun City Fire District severely limited the expenditures for capital improvements in lieu of spending available funding to retain all of the personnel possible. Between 2008 and 2015 the department did not purchase any new apparatus, did not build any new facilities, did not repave nor maintain any of the departments’ parking lots, nor make any preventative maintenance repairs to department facilities. Due to these restrictions, department maintenance and replacement schedules were not made to critical infrastructure. Due to the extreme usage of department equipment, with the lack of maintenance dollars, our infrastructure has deteriorated to a point that it is more expensive to try to maintain rather than replace needed items.
I have available a spreadsheet reflecting the levy from 2008 through 2016, which clearly demonstrates the effects of economic downturn that has been facing our fire department. As you will note that while revenues continued to fall our call volume continued to increase. The Sun City Fire and Medical Department responded to more calls with less firefighters and equipment available to meet that response need. The neighboring communities, who are funded through a completely different revenue source, responded into Sun City to handle roughly 3,000 calls per year that we were unable to meet ourselves during this time frame.
We have since, through a federal grant, replaced 12 of the lost positions and returned one additional unit to front line service. I would also like to call to attention once again that the firefighters, whose positions were not lost due to the economic downturn, voluntarily went five years, not three, without a raise. The Board of Directors and the members of this fire department have acted extremely responsible as fiduciaries to this community and should be commended as such.
I would also like to address comments regarding closing of a station. While on the surface closing Fire Station 133, 13013 N. 111th Ave., might seem like a good idea, it is not feasible when it comes to dealing with the needs of our community. Closing this station would have the effect of having neighboring communities respond to approximately 4,000 additional calls per year handled out of this facility with their fire department equipment and personnel. Taxpayers in those communities fund their departments the same as residents in our community fund ours.
The Sun City Fire and Medical Department participates in the regional Automatic Aid Consortium, which allows fire department units to respond into neighboring communities if they have the closest unit to the emergency. Requirements for participation in this consortium exist that state a department is responsible for meeting, the majority of the call volume generated within the jurisdiction, while responding across jurisdictional boundaries when having the closest available units. While our neighboring communities are willing to cover our needs during economic hardships. permanently shutting down a station and placing this burden on a neighboring community would have the effect of having the department ejected from the Automatic Aid Consortium. Our neighboring communities are not going to permanently respond into Sun City causing them to pay employee wages and benefits, fuel, and wear and tear to their vehicles free of charge. If this were to become a permanent solution, they would have no alternative but to annex those areas that they serve to recover revenue for their costs.
The Fire District Board of Directors and the leadership of the Sun City Fire and Medical Department realize that a bond represents a temporary tax increase and take this very seriously. Realizing the need to replace infrastructure that allows the department to continue to deliver service caused a serious debate weighing out the needs versus placing a small tax increase for a specified amount of time on individuals who live on fixed incomes. That is why the board decided to put together a committee comprised of district officials and citizens from the community in equal amounts. The district realized that the citizens needed a voice in attacks that would involve them.
The board also conducted a community needs survey in which a 76 percent approval rating was obtained. The Fire District Board of Directors, based on the community’s current valuation, could have bonded for $18 million. At the direction of the bonding committee, the board opted to bond for $10 million, which is the minimum needed to fix the immediate problem. Realizing the fixed incomes of most district residents, they also decided to pay back the bond over a 20-year period, to keep the tax rate as low as possible (approximately $27 per household per year).
In closing I would like to say that we at the Sun City Fire and Medical Department realize what we are asking, which is why we put it on the ballot. The residents of Sun City have the right to vote for how they want their fire department to be run and funded. Thank you for letting me clarify these points and please encourage all voters to cast a ballot so that their voice is heard.
Sun City Fire Chief