Where There's Smoke

Northwest Fire District has money to burn.

In a broad swath of the booming northwest side, intense heat is coming from the Northwest Fire District, the state's richest and largest, and a burgeoning empire that is spending itself out of control.

Northwest Fire will burn through nearly $14 million this year, spending more than 42 percent more than what it did in fiscal 2000-01, which ended June 30. And though it is mired in nearly $3 million of debt, caused by gorging on territory and facilities, trucks and other equipment, a majority of the district's board could manage--even after stirring criticism from taxpayers--to snip spending by just $2,800. That insignificant cut came despite admission by Northwest's peripatetic chief, Jeff Piechura, that the budget contains "a nice cushion of cash."

The same majority, led by Patrick Quinn, a high-ranking official with the Tucson Fire Department, jacked up property taxes nearly 30 percent. The owner of a $150,000 home will be paying $364 this year to Northwest Fire. That is a 45-percent increase from the $252 bill the owner of a $150,000 home paid Northwest Fire five years ago.

For better perspective, the owner of a similarly valued home in Tucson will pay just $174 in city property taxes this year, and although the city's chief general fund revenue is a 2-cents-per-dollar sales tax, that property tax entitles city residents to service from the Tucson Fire Department and garbage collection.

This should be a concern not just for the 150,000 people who live in Northwest's 126-square-mile territory, which includes Marana, but even those in Tucson at Manzo and Menlo Park, at Jefferson Park, in Sam Hughes and Rincon Heights, and in South Tucson. All property owners in Tucson and South Tucson, even though the two cities have their own fire departments, join all Pima County property owners in subsidizing Northwest Fire's budget and the budgets of the 17 other fire districts in the county. They all must pay into a pool, the fire district assistance, that last year was more than $2 million. For the owner of a home on the tax rolls for $150,000, that's the cost of a movie--$7.50. Of that, $1.87 went to Northwest Fire, for a total of nearly $500,000 in countywide fire district assistance.

Moreover, Northwest Fire's predicament, with millions of dollars of debt and an insatiable need to expand with facilities, equipment, and fire-fighting and paramedic and emergency medical forces, shows that despite the sharp increases in tax base, growth for this government does not pay for itself.

NORTHWEST'S spending is hardly confined to fighting fires, treating the injured and removing snakes, records show. It is a lavish giver of gifts such as floral bouquets, and also can't contain spending on meals, junkets, books and subscriptions, public relations, tuition reimbursement, personal SUVs or mileage reimbursements.

It also buys regularly from United Fire Service, a North Fourth Avenue company owned by Danny Matlick, the head of Northwest Fire's budget review committee as well as the district's emergency services committee. An example: $29,306 in two major invoices that Northwest paid Matlick's company in January.

Piechura, a personable and energetic sort, has angered some residents for his frequent absences to join crews fighting wildfires in other Western states. He was gone, for example, when the district's board met to discuss the new budget and other matters, including his contract extension, on June 26. And after numerous items were passed to an assistant who lamented that his boss was out of state, the board finally reached Peichura by cell phone at that week's wildfire in New Mexico.

"Hey chief, the board is on break now," Assistant Chief Al Pesquiera said before Quinn told him to go ahead and ask Piechura what had stumped the board and staff: whether $161,000 the district owes to a pooled account managed--or rather mismanaged--by Pima County should be paid immediately or within a year.

To his credit, Piechura knew the answer someone else should have known, and the incident became another scene in Northwest's theater of the absurd. There are plenty of others:

· The illegal motion on March 27 by Quinn, the Northwest Fire board's chairman, and subsequent illegal action by his Board followers, Linda Christopherson and James Doyle, to set the tax rate for the 2001-01 year at $2.45 per $100 of assessed value, or $367.50 for the owner of a $150,000 home in Northwest Fire District. While the agenda, required under the state Open Meeting Law, included the broad category "budget," it did not include sufficient notice of a tax rate hike.

· The improper move to erase that action. Rather than place the item on the next agenda, with proper notice, for ratification and possible further action including reversal, Quinn and board clerks scurried to amend and change his motion retroactively when the minutes for the March 27 meeting came for approval.

Quinn, with the help of a clerk, said at the April 24 meeting that his tax motion was not what he intended. The clerk suggested the board table the minutes so she could revise them accordingly.

The original minutes correctly noted Quinn's motion, which was seconded by Christopherson and passed 3-1. Board member Jane Madden dissented. The original minutes show Quinn's motion was "to increase the tax rate for the fiscal year 2001-02 to $2.45, with $2.32 to be used for the baseline budget to add the new positions as presented, and the remainder to be used for capital projects."

A tape recording of the meeting, despite the gabbing and Pebbles Flintstone-like jabbering from Doyle's kids, who join their father at meetings including, improperly, executive sessions, is clear enough to make certain that Quinn did make the improper motion and that it was seconded and passed.

· The sanctioned tampering of the minutes resulted in a sanitized motion in which Quinn supposedly suggested the budget committee use the $2.45 tax rate as a benchmark in budget preparation.

· Reneging on a Northwest Board commitment to eliminate within two years via the 1999 and 2000 tax increases--totaling $48 on a $150,000 home--the debt of more than $3 million. Taxes were boosted again and yet the debt, which the Board has bragged that it refinanced, won't be paid off until the end of 2003.

Quinn, a Boy Scout leader whose scout work is praised by even those who can't tolerate his service on the Northwest Fire Board, had this response: "I don't have to keep someone else's promise."

It was a promise made partly to lure residents four years ago when Northwest, begun in 1983, swallowed up the Flowing Wells Fire District to the south.

NORTHWEST DOES HAVE its supporters. Some residents of Heritage Hills have worried through a nine-year plea for fire hydrants. They will get them under Northwest's three-year capital plan, which will tentatively hit $1 million a year.

At $13.8 million, this year's spending plan provides for generous raises for the chief and his staff and 11 new employees, including the beginning of a three-year plan to add nine firefighters a year.

It is other spending that has irritated residents, including three that no government really wants to annoy. Mary and Jim Schuh, the longtime government and tax watchdogs, have sunk their teeth into Northwest Fire, particularly Piechura and Quinn. Mary Schuh called for Piechura's ouster earlier this year. And F. Ann Rodriguez, the Democrat who is in her third term as Pima County Recorder, has been outraged, like the Schuhs, by the Northwest Board's inability to cut what she thinks is waste.

Both attended the protracted Northwest budget hearing July 2 and were treated to a meeting that, because of Quinn's lack of knowledge of even basic parliamentary procedure, could be viewed as out of order or, charitably, like an open New England-style town hall.

There was dialogue, not one-way talk from either side. There were no time limits. And the Schuhs, Rodriguez and others were permitted to rise numerous times to make their objections to the spending.

Rodriguez, who toyed with the idea of running for the Northwest Board after seeing her taxes constantly rise, blasted the Board for allowing the $40,000 purchase of a new SUV, personnel expenses that are up nearly 30 percent, nearly $23,000 more for travel, conferences and a retreat at $7,000 alone, and $27,000 for public relations that includes a newsletter and education.

She also pointed to the often-absent Chief Piechura in a previous letter.

"I have been told the 'chief' has visited the far corners of the Northwest District," Rodriguez wrote. "But Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming is a stretch. The Northwest Fire District is in Pima County, Arizona, and you have a large tax wildfire that needs to be doused."

Rodriguez said that continued high taxes and misspending by Northwest will lead residents, particularly on the southern end, to seek annexation by the city.

So regularly, dramatically and scathingly has Mary Schuh lit up the Board of Supervisors, the Pima Community College Board and the Northwest Fire Board, that there was certain anticipation when she appeared on July 2. When she first rose, she initially praised the firefighters and the couple of Marana cops who were on hand for the meeting at Station 34 on North Wade Road.

In her second year on the Amphi School Board, Schuh said she had a deep, abiding love and respect for fire fighters and police matched only by a deep dislike for politicians and bureaucrats who spend taxpayers' money.

Northwest's taxes, she said, must be cut. The district could keep the rate the same or even drop it and still collect and spend more money because of the increased value of properties, either through new construction or higher values by the assessor.

Quinn's Board proceeded clumsily, discussing the budget and its ingredients without having a motion on the table. Only when a spectator made a comment about it to Rodriguez did someone scurry up to Doyle, who kept his head buried in some papers while paying no attention to the speakers, and suggest that a motion should be put out. Doyle knows what it's like living off tax- or ratepayers. He makes $57,221 working for the county sewer system. He also serves on the Metro Water District.

Critics prodded Quinn--who, like Piechura, was alternately gracious and condescending--and the Board to look at the budget's general line items one by one. Still, they could manage less than $3,000 in elimination.

Christopherson led the way for the district's new $40,000 purchase of a three-quarter-ton Suburban that will enable Piechura to get his taxpayer-financed Expedition back. Tucson first? Forget it. Northwest took the bid for the Suburban from Courtesy Chevrolet in Phoenix.

For his part, Quinn, the man who in March leaped to raise taxes, backed away in nearly similar fashion. Displaying either alarming ignorance or simply trying to cover himself, Quinn repeatedly and incorrectly said he and his Board don't set the tax rate. That, he repeatedly misspoke, was the job of County Assessor Rick Lyons.

News to Lyons, the Democrat whose office values property. And while the Board of Supervisors, in a pro-forma action by state law, levies the taxes of all jurisdictions in the county on the third Monday in August, it hardly does so in a vacuum. It uses the rates forwarded by the jurisdictions.

QUINN, WHO MAKES $63,085 a year as a Tucson Fire Department captain, is allowed under the City Charter and the city's personnel rules to serve on the Northwest Fire Board because it is a non-partisan and unpaid seat.

Neither he nor members of his majority looked closely at other expenses.

A snapshot of expenses is provided by some bills approved in June. They include 30 babysitting books from Barnes & Noble for $731.64, or $24.38 apiece; legal services from Daniel Hochuli for $1,497 and $3,516, from Fenimore Craig for $650, and from Gabroy, Rollman & Bosse for $161; floral arrangements from Inglis Florists for $152.95 and four from Casas Adobes Florist Shop for $208.30; a subscription to North American Wildlife for $34.95; a charge from Fry's Food & Drug for film processing at $55 for eight rolls; and a $300 payment to Eller Media for a three-month billboard poster. Taxpayers also covered a $17.34 meal at the Olive Garden and one for $124.68 at La Parrilla Suiza. Bills at Pizza Hut and the Cracker Barrel were $191 and $242 respectively.

Piechura received a $502 mileage reimbursement and billed the district $158 for a stay at the Los Angeles Hilton and $293 for a meeting at the Arizona Golf Resort.

Northwest also is big on shirts, polos and Ts. One bill was for $155, another for $109. And taxpayers bought 1,000 neon twist pens for $345 and paid $205 for 3,000 junior fire fighter stickers.

Keeping the kids happy cost the taxpayers, according to a bill approved retroactively in June, $454.75 for an air castle.

Over and over, the Schuhs, Rodriguez and others tried to give the Board easy ways to at least start cutting. For example, Schuh suggested chopping the $5,000 increase--77 percent--for the newsletter because the newsletter simply isn't needed.

"You have a captive audience," she said.

But Christopherson, with a constipated expression through much of the four-hour meeting, countered that after cuts to the newsletter in previous years the increase was necessary.

Madden, a tax critic who once served on a key county committee that ultimately helped preserve the county's health system, tried several times to cut budget lines including the newsletter. She got no help from the Quinn/Christopherson/Doyle majority.

As 11:30 p.m. neared after the budget vote, taxpayers could treat themselves to an example of Northwest's newsletter PR.

It states: "The primary goal of the current Board is to provide service for District residents at a continued low tax rate."

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