This story is the second in a series examining the discussion related to implementing a Public Safety Fee along with an increase in the local sales tax, which the Town Council will be taking up at its regular session on Tuesday, Aug. 13.
Since the inception of development now nearly half a century ago, Fountain Hills has had essentially the same services providing law enforcement and fire protection.
Prior to incorporation the community was within Maricopa County and covered by the Sheriff’s Office as unincorporated county. The area was part of a far-flung district office and law enforcement patrol was rarely seen. Deputies generally responded only if called.
That is perhaps why early on the developer, McCulloch Properties, hired the private Scottsdale firm, Rural/Metro Corp. to provide security patrols, as well as some semblance of fire protection for the fledgling community.
In 1977 a fire district was formed with a five-member board of commissioners to enhance fire protection services to Fountain Hills. The district chose to contract with Rural/Metro, keeping the company’s association with the community.
After incorporation the first Town Council made the decision to maintain a relationship with the Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services. But as the town grew there were quality of life concerns where residents wanted greater focus the Sheriff’s Office was not equipped to handle. These included various code complaints and, to some extent, animal control.
The town chose to establish a Marshal’s Department to address these quality of life concerns. Under the management of Marshal Steve Gendler, an Arizona Department of Public Safety veteran, that department began to grow to the point where it would have soon been able to take on the role as the police department for the town.
The council, however, was unwilling to take that final step to operating its own department and tension between the Marshal’s Department and Sheriff’s Office grew to such an extent that it prompted the council to disband the Marshals in 2002 and formally contract with MCSO beginning in 2003.
It was prior to the law enforcement separation that the town experienced a traumatic break-up in relation to the fire service.
Late in the 1990s Rural/Metro seemed on shaky financial ground and in fact did declare for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Wanting to maintain solvency for the district, the Fire Board made the decision in 1999 to give Rural/Metro notice it was severing its contract.
The board had built the fire stations in town and owned some equipment, but it moved forward to purchase equipment to replace items owned by Rural/Metro including radios, breathing apparatus and trucks. The district selected a new team of chiefs for management, but instead of calling on those working for Rural/Metro in the community to come to work for the district they chose a formal hiring process that would require those already working here to apply for a job.
The firefighters’ union was not on board with this and fought the district on the issue.
Having enough of the turmoil that continued for some time the Town Council voted at a special mid-day meeting on Halloween 2001 to take over fire protection services for the community and retain Rural/Metro.
Firefighters already hired by the district were dismissed and sued, eventually settling their dispute.
Looking at ways to pay for the newly acquired fire service the Town Council asked for a property tax, which voters rejected. There was an independent effort to restart a fire district, but the complexity of that process made it nearly impossible to accomplish and the effort failed. The council finally settled on an increase in the sales tax to recoup some of the costs for fire service.
In the time since other surrounding communities contracting with Rural/Metro, the City of Scottsdale and the Rio Verde Fire District chose to sever their ties with the company and form their own departments.
However, in the two decades since there has been little controversy with regard to either law enforcement or fire and emergency medical services for Fountain Hills. Councils have renewed the contracts relatively certain they could do little better.
The town is getting a high level of service for what it pays, according to Town Manager Grady Miller.
But costs continue to grow and at this point the roughly $8 million cost of both police and fire is more than half of the town’s general fund budget. With little wiggle room for reduction in these services, the costs are running ahead of revenue.
Next week we will take a look at the proposed Public Safety Fee and how it is intended to impact this situation.