Vote Will Decide If Fire Districts Merge

Tonto Village, Diamond Star seek comments

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Merging the Tonto Village and Diamond Star Fire Districts has been tested for the last eight months. The results appear promising enough to take the next step, formally joining the two districts into a new, larger entity called the Hellsgate Fire District.

Property owners in the two districts are invited to participate in a two-part public hearing Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008. The first part will be at 4:30 p.m. at the Star Valley fire station, 80 S. Walter Lane, with the Diamond Star Fire District Board. The Tonto Village Fire District board will hold the second part of the hearing at 7 p.m. at the Tonto Village station, 151 Mathews Lane.

The two districts have been operating with an intergovernmental agreement since April 2007, which was made following the resignation of the Tonto Village Fire District chief. The agreement provided the Tonto Village district with the services of the Diamond Star Chief Gary Hatch, administrative assistance and training.

"This contract has led to huge improvements in the capabilities and level of service from the TVFD," said Rick Washburn, chairman of the board for the TVFD.

"By consolidating administration and overhead, our tax dollars can go further toward increasing service," he said.

The move toward better service was boosted with an analysis of the TVFD equipment, maintenance, training and response capabilities by Hatch when the IGA was first in place. As a result of the analysis, the old, obsolete equipment was sold and two Type 1 Structural Engines were brought into service and costs for insurance and maintenance were reduced, Washburn said.

"Through merging, I believe we can give the taxpayer better service than we can separately," said Richard Pinkerton, chairman of the Diamond Star Fire District.

Hatch said the IGA has proven to be a good thing.

"It has allowed me to work on and initiate long-term planning for both districts," Hatch said.

"Having two districts to represent has been a great challenge and a success story so far, but having two boards, two administrations and two staffs has added work beyond what we felt it would be. This merger will solve many of these issues we face with supplying better service. With one board, one administration and one staff, we can continue toward making fire service in the areas we cover the best we can," Hatch said.

The merger requires both district boards give it unanimous approval. If the votes are not unanimous, then the issue will be put before the voters, probably in May, Hatch said.

"We're anticipating it will have unanimous approval," he said.

The two districts will keep funds separate through the end of this fiscal year. For the 2008-2009 fiscal year, the budget will cover both districts, using taxpayer money from both communities.

Hatch said the new tax rate is likely to be somewhere between what is being paid currently by the property owners in the two areas.

"It is not really going to be less expensive to operate the two districts as one, but we can make better use of the funds, have more purchasing power. It will be an economy of scale," Hatch said.

It will also put money into the pockets of the firefighters currently serving the Tonto Village Fire District as volunteers.

"They will become paid on-call personnel," Hatch said, explaining the volunteers will be paid for every call to which they respond.

He said one of the biggest benefits would be a consolidation in training.

Rick Heron, training officer for Diamond Star Fire District and one of its captains addressed the training issue.

"In the Rim Country, one of our most difficult obstacles has been consistency in operation. As different departments assist on an incident, the lack of consistency can create a dangerous situation," Heron said.

"The merger of Diamond Star and Tonto Village will take operational training to the next step and help create a professional, proficient and well-trained department," Heron said.

A merger will also make it possible to make much-needed improvements in the facilities operated by the two districts. The Star Valley station needs to be expanded. Station 61 in Tonto Village is becoming unsafe and a replacement station will need to be built soon, said Washburn.

Merging fire districts is becoming a national trend, Hatch said. "Duplication of services, manpower constraints and paperwork are behind the drive to consolidate operations."

It is an issue that districts of all sizes are exploring, he said.

Currently the state's largest fire district and its fifth-largest district are considering merging operations.

"This merger will help eliminate duplication of services and focus on providing great fire and emergency medical services to the residents and guests of both districts," Hatch said.

To learn more about the merger before the Jan. 9 public hearings, call the Diamond Star Fire District at (928) 474-3835 or e-mail mergerissues@diamondstarfire.org or mergerissues@tontovillagefire.org.

The newsletter detailing the merger is online at both these Web sites as well.

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