County island fire district wins praise - East Valley Tribune: News

County island fire district wins praise

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Posted: Tuesday, July 28, 2009 7:44 pm | Updated: 12:39 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

A quiet across the county island front is something few would have predicted two or three years ago, when then-Mayor Steve Berman was widely accused of telling residents of unincorporated areas seeking fire protection from Gilbert to "annex or burn."

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Berman denied ever making that statement, but that phrase came to define the conflict between county islanders and Gilbert officials concerned about the cost and liability of responding to emergencies outside the town.

A state law passed a year ago effectively assigned the town responsibility for protecting the Gilbert County Island Fire District, and leaders of both sides say relations have improved. However, there are still water and road access issues that town officials say occasionally hamper efforts when fighting fires.

Gilbert fire Chief Collin DeWitt and fire district board member Steve Kalandros cited two fires over the last year where access to water and road barriers presented problems. In one instance, a 911 call was delayed.

Yet Kalandros said he's more than satisfied with the department's overall performance: "I think they've done a great job here, considering what they've had to work with."

A significant drop in the amount Gilbert is charging the district for service has also helped pave the way for better relations. Under the one-year agreement reached in 2008 with the help of a county-appointed arbitration board, the district paid the town a little more than $1 million for service, $400,000 less than Gilbert was seeking. This summer, the town and district agreed that next year's bill would be $641,418, dropping the assessment per fire district household from about $1.70 per $100 of assessed valuation on homes to 95 cents.

Decreasing startup costs, a lower overall fire department budget and a smaller district because some areas annexed into Gilbert are the main factors behind the cheaper bills, according to town and district officials.

DeWitt said the department responded to 145 calls for service in the fire district between the start of service in late July 2008 and June 30 of this year. Twenty-three were structure fires, 108 were medical calls, and the remaining 14 were for other services. These represent a tiny fraction of the more than 12,000 calls that came from within town limits.

DeWitt said the establishment of a longer-term agreement does not affect how the rank-and-file firefighters approach their jobs, and most are just grateful to be taken out of the politics of the situation.

"They feel good about being able to respond to all the homes, and they don't have to worry about who's in or out. And the people they see are happy with the service," he said.

The "annex or burn" saga was triggered after Rural/Metro announced in November 2005 it would be pulling out of the county islands. The companyhad been providing service to subscribers for a fee and other households for a higher cost per response.

This led to a surge of annexations, encouraged by a fee waiver believed to have cost the town millions of dollars. Some annexations were blocked by residents who didn't want to join the town, and some Gilbert residents were also opposed to the idea. But by November 2007, more than 70 percent of county islands had joined Gilbert.

Town Manager George Pettit said Monday that Gilbert is still offering free annexations on a limited basis.

Now that the basics of protection for the nearly 1,500 properties in the district are hammered out, figuring out how to install more hydrants in the area could be the district's next move. Officials also want to continue to improve the department's mapping of those hydrants that are already available.

Disputes between the town and county islanders over whether hydrants should be required and who should pay for them were a key sticking point throughout the process.

Kalandros said an unsuccessful bill introduced recently in the state Legislature would have given fire districts bonding authority, providing one possible revenue source for adding to the district's water supply.

But district board member Leni Cazden said her response to one plan for hydrants was "in your dreams" because the expected cost was $300 million.

Yet, Cazden is pleased the town's bill to the district decreased by such a large amount. She said the new rate is a fairer price for district homeowners. Cazden said she isn't sure the fire department always does everything it can to get to county island homes, but one solution might be to change the expectations.

"Why don't you just say that 'you're taking a risk living in a county island, just like people who rebuild their homes in Mailbu Canyon even though a wildfire comes through every five years,' and not make such a big deal about it?"

In fact, the new agreement between the town and district includes a section devoted to outlining the additional hazards fire crews are more likely to encounter in county islands, such as culverts that might not support the weight of a firetruck, a lack of hydrants, incomplete information about a building's structural integrity or the presence of hazardous materials that may not be allowed in town.  

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