As the new mayor of Carefree I am proud of many things in our town, including our history of providing comprehensive fire and emergency medical services for our residents. Rural Metro has furnished us excellent service for decades. In 2008 we purchased our own fire truck, built our own fire station, and then staffed our fire department through a contract with Rural Metro. Using the Mutual Aid service model, where neighboring fire departments assist neighboring fire departments, we enjoyed some of the most reliable protection available.
Over time, both emergency medical and fire services have evolved. In 1990 a consortium of fire stations in the central Phoenix valley established a new system called “Automatic Aid”. In Automatic Aid dispatching computers select the closest available fire, rescue, or paramedic units without regard to jurisdictional boundaries. Disappearing boundaries and automatic computer dispatch reduced response times dramatically. It enabled multiple stations to send enough combined equipment to major incidents to enable full compliance to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards in almost all cases. For Automatic Aid members, the new system created a regional, seamless fire department.
Over time, the success of Automatic Aid led to its expansion, including Scottsdale in 2005 and Paradise Valley in 2011. Last year our neighbor Cave Creek joined Automatic Aid, and when Fountain Hills joins in 2024, Carefree will be left as the only Mutual Aid municipality in the north Valley.
The expansion of Automatic Aid has coincided with the disappearance of our Mutual Aid partners. Last year, Scottsdale canceled their long-standing Mutual Aid agreement with Rural Metro. Our nearest Mutual Aid partner now is in Rio Verde Foothills, 30 minutes away. Carefree is now a Mutual Aid island. Our local fire fighters are still wonderful, but they are not always the closest responders to many of our residents.
If Carefree were in the Automatic Aid system, our far eastern residents would likely be serviced by the closer Scottsdale 616 and 615 fire stations, our south side of Black Mountain residents would likely be serviced by their nearby Phoenix fire, station and our far western residents would likely be serviced by the closer Daisy Mountain staffed Cave Creek fire station. In a fire or medical emergency, every second counts.
The risk associated with a less timely, non-NFPA compliant system is not optimal when dealing with an emergency event that could impact lives and properties. This is why these other communities have and are making a shift to the more robust regional automatic aid system that the Carefree Fire Chief described as ‘the gold standard’.
The catch is that the Automatic Aid approach comes with a significant ongoing annual operation cost. These costs will increase each successive year. It is estimated, based upon the data provided by the Daisy Mountain Fire District (the most cost-effective proposal received by the Town) that in just the initial year, the annual operation costs will add approximately $1 million to the Town’s annual $7 million operation budget. Like the Cave Creek contract, our contract would likely be a 25-year commitment. Applying a variable annual inflationary index to this contract will increase the costs of the contract from its initial year to its final year by about $2 million. To move to Automatic Aide will entail a long-term financial commitment. A sustainable and solvent financial model must be identified.
From an operational perspective, the Town has one of the smallest municipal staffs in Arizona. Occasionally, outside consultants are pulled in to supplement workload. While some savings are always possible, cutting $1 million in the Town’s $7 million budget is not possible.
Our current financial model relies heavily upon sales tax revenue to operate the Town. Carefree sales tax rates are already among the highest in the north Valley. They cannot be increased without negatively impacting local businesses. Making sales tax funding more precarious, the State Legislators are considering preventing cities and towns from taxing food and residential rent. If made into law, this would curtail Carefree sales tax revenue by nearly $300,000 annually. Coincidentally, this is the about the same amount forecasted to be generated by the Hampton Inn and the about same amount as the 2022 Rural Metro and 2023 MCSO contract combined increase.
With limited capacity to save and a limited capacity in sales tax dollars, the community conversation this past fall, through a series of five citizen workshops, outlined the option to complement the Town’s sales taxes with a modest primary property tax.
The goal of this property tax would be to directly support the long-term financial commitment needed to subscribe to the more robust and dependable Automatic Aid system. To the average household in Carefree, this primary property tax levy of $2 million would equate to about $106 per $100,000 of Limited Property Value (LPV). LPV is a reduced valuation of one’s property value.
It is the value upon which property taxes are assessed. Your LPV value is shown on your most recent County tax bill. Under the Carefree Town Code, the property tax will NOT increase without approval from the voters. The $2 million levy will stay fixed. The property tax rate would be adjusted lower each year as property values increase. Monies collected would be placed in a restricted fire fund and only used for fire and emergency medical service expenses.
On May 16, Carefree voters will decide if a municipal property tax should be imposed to fund Automatic Aid fire and emergency medical services or if the Town should continue to work with the less robust Rural Metro model. While Automatic Aid’s seamless regional cooperation and partnership is the right thing to do from an emergency response perspective, it comes with significant costs.
Therefore, we must ask the question about the risk and the associated costs. Are you willing to risk lives and properties for a nominal and controlled fee? Get informed. Visit the Town website. The property tax will be on the ballot in May.
Voting YES is the right choice for me. Is it the right choice for you? The choice is yours.
Mayor, Town of Carefree