Since forming 35 years ago at the request of northern Pima County homeowners who wanted their own fire department, the Golder Ranch Fire District has slowly expanded its boundaries south and west, and currently covers 200 square miles.
Most of that growth has gone unchallenged. Many times, the annexations were warmly welcomed by residents and businesses, officials say.
"We don't want to force ourselves on anyone," said John Sullivan, the district's administration and support services chief.
But Golder Ranch's latest push to add another 7 square miles—including the upscale La Encantada shopping center—is likely to run into opposition.
About 5,000 residents would be affected by the change. The first time most of them heard about the proposal was around Thanksgiving, when fliers started showing up in mailboxes. Their main opportunity to ask questions about the proposal came Tuesday, Dec. 6, at a public hearing at Golder Ranch district headquarters—which is 15 miles from the proposed annexation area.
"I knew this was going to come sooner or later," said Joe Frannea, president of the Cobo Catalina Hills homeowner association. "I really thought it would be Northwest (Fire/Rescue District), though."
Foothills residents have a tradition of fighting off attempts to incorporate or annex the area. Consider the landslide defeat of an incorporation vote a decade ago, or the out-of-the-woodwork backlash in 2008 from residents within an 88-acre sliver near First Avenue and River Road that the city of Tucson eyed.
The Golder Ranch district's proposed annexation also would take away a large chunk of coverage—and revenue—from current provider Rural/Metro, a private company still healing from a furious fight to hold on to territory it covers in Sahuarita earlier this year.
"We're still going to continue to provide service," said Rural/Metro spokesman Grant Cesarek, adding that his company was "caught off guard" by Golder's move to go public with its plans. In "most of the foothills territory, our placement is strategic, and our response times are excellent. Our service is second to none. We have a very good rate in that area."
The proposed annexation area is bordered roughly by Campbell Avenue to the east, First Avenue to the west, Orange Grove Road to the south, and Magee Road to the north. The Golder district would also need to include two square miles of Coronado National Forest land north of Magee to comply with state laws requiring that annexed land be adjacent to the district's current coverage area.
Golder Ranch officials say their interest in the area is part of an effort to keep costs down through managed expansion. They say the move is not a money grab, despite the presence of nearly $2 million more in taxes the district could receive—a 15 percent increase in its existing tax base. They also note that their rates, which are a based on a property's secondary assessed value, have stayed flat or dropped every year since 2001.
The current rate is $1.73 per $100 of assessed value, of which 14 cents helps pay for bonds the district has taken out for capital projects such as new fire stations.
In its boundary-change impact statement, Golder Ranch included figures for a home within the annexation area that would end up paying $743 for fire protection.
Coverage for the same house by Rural/Metro is currently $511 a year, based on a charge of 17 cents per square foot for homes less than 3,700 square feet. The rate is 19 cents for homes larger than 3,700 square feet. A $70 surcharge is added for parcels larger than seven acres.
Frannea, who has owned his home in Cobo Catalina Hills for 15 years, estimated the average home in his neighborhood would see its annual fire-protection cost go from $779 to $1,071, an increase of 37 percent.
"I have one neighbor whose bill is going to go up 108 percent," Frannea said.
The markup is expected to be much higher for La Encantada, at Campbell Avenue and Skyline Drive. Officials with Westcor, the mall's owner, declined to identify how much they're paying Rural/Metro. But spokesman Mark Holder said the cost of switching to Golder Ranch "would be significantly higher."
La Encantada's assessed value is more than $5.6 million, according to county records, which would mean a property-tax increase of more than $97,000.
La Encantada is one of many clients in the annexation area that receive discounted Rural/Metro coverage because of property features such as sprinklers, fire hydrants and monitored alarm systems. Those features can result in discounts up to 40 percent, Cesarek said.
"A lot of the homes in that area are going toward the monitored fire alarms," Cesarek said.
To counter concerns about a price increase, Golder Ranch officials say residents and businesses will be able to deduct property taxes on their income-tax returns, something that's not possible with voluntary fire subscriptions. (Fire protection through Rural/Metro is not mandatory: The company sends a bill, and if a resident or business doesn't pay it, and winds up needing service, the fire department will come ... and so will an enormous bill. With fire districts, enrollment is mandatory.)
"They may see some relief through a tax deduction," Golder Ranch community relations manager Josh Hurguy said.
Golder Ranch officials claim their service is superior to that of Rural/Metro. As an example, they point to the district's automatic-aid agreement with Northwest Fire, which provides protection to the west of the proposed annexation. Automatic aid means that when one district gets a call, the other will automatically provide assistance to either help with the call or cover areas left thin by the emergency.
Rural/Metro has no such agreements with Northwest, Golder Ranch or the Tucson Fire Department to the south. Instead, it relies on a mutual-aid agreement, in which those departments will help out when they can.
If an annexation push gets the green light from Golder Ranch's governing board, the district will have a year to collect signatures from both a majority of the property owners, and property owners who control a majority of the area's property value.
"We have nothing necessarily to prove or gain through the annexation other than shared resources over the area that ultimately benefit everyone," Sullivan said. "It boils down to whether or not the property owners in the area want us."