Soaring property tax rates in the Hellsgate Fire District serving Star Valley and many unincorporated communities has spurred a vigorously contested race for board seats.
Challengers have criticized the rapid increase in the property tax rate the fire district charges, ensuring that even as property values declined in Rim Country homeowners still found the property tax they paid to the district rising, after the board boosted the rate to the maximum allowed by law.
This upset some residents living in the district, which includes Star Valley and Tonto Village. Several candidates insist the district can find alternative ways to raise capital and cut expenses without burdening residents.
Others defend the rate increase and insist the community cannot afford to cut fire protection and medical service.
Those running for Hellsgate’s fire board fall into one of two camps — those that support the current board’s direction and others that feel it has fallen off course.
Gary Norem, Garrah Monnich and Larry Cory (the only incumbent running) say despite several years of steep budget cuts, Hellsgate officials have managed to retain a high level of service —one they plan to maintain, even if it means more tax increases.
Fred Horton strongly disagrees.
Norem, Monnich, Cory and Horton are running to fill three seats on Hellsgate’s fire board, which will appear on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
Hellsgate will hold two meet-and-greets with the candidates this month. The first is Oct. 13 at 9 a.m. at the Tonto Village fire station. The second is Oct. 20 at 9 a.m. at the fire station in Star Valley.
Ask any of the candidates and they’ll tell you funding is one of the biggest issues facing the fire district.
The district has struggled to cope with several costly trends, including the Payson Fire Department’s elimination of its annual $160,000 service contract, continuing property devaluations and the rising cost of doing business.
All these blows prompted the district to lay off its battalion chief, sell a fire truck, downsize administrative offices, suspend raises and cut the accrual rate of paid time off in half for 18 months.
The district even experimented with a squad response that dispatched paramedics on a pickup truck for medical calls rather than a fire engine. Chief Gary Hatch found this approach didn’t actually save the district any money or time, so he scrapped it.
Now, nearly half of the district’s revenue comes from taxes, with the rest from payments from the federal government to Hellsgate for help fighting wildland fires. The district also relied on federal grants, including a recently landed grant that will restore the battalion chief position and bolster the number of full-time firefighters. The district also continues to rely heavily on trained volunteers.
But with wildland and grant money unpredictable, the candidates say the district needs a long-term plan.
“This district has to develop a five- and 10-year plan, which gives the board a goal to work toward for future funding,” Monnich said.
This year, the department got lucky. Hellsgate was one of two departments in the state to land a coveted SAFER grant, which gives them enough money to retain four engineers and hire a new battalion chief.
Still, the district had to raise the tax rate. The Gila County Board of Supervisors sets the rate each year based on a request from the fire district’s board of directors.
Hatch said this year’s 19.8 percent drop in property values means the department would have lost $152,000 if it hadn’t raised the rate.
The district has already lost $24,300 as the result of a cut in the Arizona Fire District Assistance Tax.
Hatch said if the district doesn’t raise taxes it must cut services, including not responding to medical calls since the law only mandates that the district’s trucks show up at fires.
Monnich said as a homeowner and taxpayer, she doesn’t want to lose personnel or services.
Norem said he also doesn’t want to see current service levels wane. If elected to the board, Norem said he would try to find ways to maintain response times “in the face of tight budgets caused by the large decline in district property valuations and the statutory maximum tax rate cap.”
Cory said he feels strongly that the department needs to maintain its services, but “it takes money to do that.”
This year, the department got some breathing room with the grant, but it only lasts two years.
Dropping property valuations pose a real concern. In 2010-2011, the county assessed property values at more than $32 million, he said. Now, the figure has dwindled to $24 million.
“That (taxes) is our primary source of revenue,” he said.
The district also worries about the impact of Proposition 117 on the statewide ballot. This measure would slap a 5 percent cap on the annual increase in the assessed values used to calculate property taxes, starting in the 2015 tax year. If it passes, the district could find itself stuck with the low property values of the housing market collapse for some years to come.
“The expiration of the SAFER federal grant in two years and the unknown impact on ballot proposition 117 are other factors that may create some big financial challenges for the Hellsgate Fire District board over the next four years,” Norem said.
Horton said while he hears the district’s plight, he doesn’t agree that with the board’s decision to raise the tax rate each year.
He said several residents have complained to him about the outrageous rate and “maybe I can help them stay in their budget.”
“I just feel that they are over spending,” he added.
Horton said he watches the department’s ladder truck drive back and forth to Payson to visit the gym and grocery store, a clear waste of resources.
“They bought a ladder truck and we don’t have any high rises,” he said. “Everyone is ticked off seeing it in Safeway or pizza place with one or two guys in it. I want to stop some of that stuff.”
Last year, Horton said he paid $600 in taxes to the fire department, nearly as much as the county tax.
Although it came down a bit this year, everyone is “fed up with being taxed to death — it is getting ridiculous.”
Hatch said previously that workers compensation claims have fallen since the department let firefighters go to the Payson gym while on duty.
Firefighters are allowed to drive the truck to Payson for 1.5-hour workouts. Since this started roughly three years ago, work-related injuries have plummeted.
“By allowing that truck to run up and down the road once every two days to go into town to let them work out, literally, we have cut workers compensation $15,000 in the last two years,” Hatch said.
On the ladder truck, Hatch said there are four commercial buildings and seven homes in the district that require a ladder truck in case of a fire.
In addition, “Payson has a ladder and with a ladder you are always supposed to have a backup. We fulfill their need for a backup and they fulfill our need for a backup.”
Norem said he knows the fire department has made a concerted effort to analyze and reduce costs without lowering service levels. He has seen this firsthand at several district board meetings in the last two years.
“The Hellsgate Fire Department provides excellent service to the residents of our community,” she said. “Having had an opportunity to work with Chief Hatch, I feel he has done and continues to do a good job in providing leadership and guidance, along with educating the public as to the direction the fire department is moving and the consequences when faced with budget shortfalls. The past fire board has done a good job of managing the district.”
Cory said he is committed to this level of service, but agrees the district needs to look long term.
The chief will retire in a few years, the captain is retirement eligible and the SAFER grant will run out.
“There is a lot of change on the horizon,” he said. “Long term planning is a big issue and if we don’t do good planning and make smart changes it will impact services.”
• Star Valley resident 7.5 years
• Was the manager of an auto body shop for 10 years. Currently employed as an independent factory representative for police and fire emergency equipment
• Family ties in fire service
• Serves on no other boards
• Part-time resident of Tonto Village since 1999, full-time resident since 2010
• Licensed Arizona certified public accountant
• Retired chief financial officer for the Industrial Commission of Arizona
• Bachelor’s degrees in business and agriculture economics
• Serves on no other boards
• Serves on the Town of Star Valley’s Planning and Zoning Commission, Floodwater Task Force and Streets and Roads Commission
• Has owned property in Star valley for more than 35 years; full-time resident since 2004
• Was involved with the incorporation of Star Valley
• Worked as a mechanic five years, with Fry’s food stores for 17 years and does part-time work as a forklift operator
• Only incumbent running; appointed to the board four years ago
• Star Valley resident seven years
• Worked 30 years in the electronics industry, specifically in support management
• Strong business background
• This is the first community board he has served on