The first initiative in Scottsdale history will give residents the power to maintain their long-held fire service relationship with Rural/Metro Corp. or develop a city-run fire department.
The May 20 special election offers two propositions drafted by The Committee to Protect Scottsdale and Our Firefighters, a union-backed group made up mostly of firefighters and their families. Early voting on the propositions begins Monday.
Proposition 200 asks voters to amend the city's charter to create a city fire department within six months. Proposition 201 asks voters to give the City Council the power to amend the city code to create a municipal fire department and appoint a fire chief and two assistant fire chiefs, and requires job preference for people currently employed to provide fire services. Ambulance service is not included in either measure.
As Scottsdale is the largest American city with private fire services and is Rural/Metro's largest fire service client, voter approval could have a profound effect on the city and its residents, the company and the surrounding East Valley areas it serves.
Though the main battle will be May 20, this fight began more than a year ago when the city hired a Massachusetts consulting firm to review Scottsdale's fire services. The Maximus report, released in March 2002, sparked controversy when it suggested the city needed to offer better training, to obtain shorter benchmarks for response times and add staff.
Resident Rich Woerth, a Tempe fire captain, led the charge as chairman of the committee seeking a city-run department. Woerth gained the support of The Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, which has 4,600 members. The firefighters and their families contributed about $300,000 to the effort.
Passage of Proposition 200 would automatically create a city fire department. Proposition 201 would let the City Council decide whether to form a department; it was added to the ballot to outline hiring practices, which could not be mandated by a charter change in Proposition 200. If both propositions fail, Rural/Metro would continue to provide fire service in Scottsdale.
For Woerth, this special election is simple.
"It's whether or not Scottsdale wants to have control of its own fire department and whether or not they want to keep the firefighters that are presently serving them,'' Woerth said. "The advantages are, you're going to have more control over your fire department.''
But firefighters are up against a firm that is recognized as a local fixture.
Rural/Metro, a publicly traded company, provides fire and emergency services for Scottsdale as well as unincorporated areas of the county, including areas near Queen Creek and Mesa, and surrounding municipalities such as Fountain Hills, Paradise Valley, Carefree and Cave Creek.
Lou Witzeman founded Rural/Metro Corp. in 1948 in an unincorporated area of Phoenix. The Scottsdale resident then provided fire service to Scottsdale, eventually opening a station in the city in 1951. Now, Rural/Metro's national headquarters are at 8401 E. Indian School Road.
In a way, Rural/Metro and Scottsdale have grown up together.
"We want to continue to provide that service to the city and the citizens of Scottsdale. It's very important to us,'' said Kurt Krumperman, Rural/Metro Corp.'s group president for Fire/EMS. "We started here. It's our history. That means something to us. But, like any community we serve, we get attached to it and we want to continue to serve it. We're very interconnected.”
But for Jim Lane, co-chairman of the Know Enough to Vote No group, it's more than that.
"There's no sentimental issue for me, and I've lived here for 30 years,'' said Lane, who also served as a member of the City Council-appointed Fire EMS Advisory Task Force. "We've got a labor-management issue that the union wants to put the costs of changing onto the citizens of Scottsdale . . . and that is probably what bothers me most.''
The public has learned that firefighters not only are fueled by their desire for better safety standards, but that they also want to be eligible for the Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, which is offered only to public service employees.
In September 2002, hundreds of current and former Scottsdale firefighters filed a class-action lawsuit against Rural/Metro and the Arthur Andersen accounting firm to recapture funds lost in failed pension plans. The suit claimed firefighters lost millions of dollars in their pensions when Rural/Metro executives and Arthur Andersen artificially concealed the true value of company stock from 1996 through 2001.
"The issues that have been put forward to try to make this change are not to the benefit of Scottsdale,'' Lane said. "I'm not here to defend Rural/Metro, I'm sure that no corporation is without sin, nor is any union without sin, but I will say that the relationship . . . has proved to be very good for the city of Scottsdale.''
Though Rural/Metro had longer response times in Scottsdale's northern neighborhoods, according to the Maximus report, city-mandated sprinkler systems safely allowed them a few minutes' leeway. Average response times in south Scottsdale generally were fewer than four minutes, while average response times in the north ranged from less than four minutes to almost seven minutes. However, Rural/Metro officials said those response times have improved with the opening of Loop 101 and a new fire station in McDowell Mountain Ranch at 16701 N. 100th St. Another is scheduled to open next month in Troon at 2777 N. Alma School Road.
Creating a city fire department would cost Scottsdale taxpayers a one-time transition fee of $6.4 million and possibly more than what it currently pays Rural/Metro, according to the city's latest estimates.
The city report also shows annual operating costs for a city department would be $740,000 less than the proposed $19.1 million fire and emergency services budget for fiscal 2003-04; the figure for a city-run department does not include retroactive retirement costs and the 14 additional firefighter positions that Rural/Metro provides on ambulances.
Craig Clifford, Scottsdale's chief financial officer, outlined four scenarios in his report, showing operating costs that would range from about $500,000 to $6 million per year for a city fire department, depending upon whether retroactive retirement benefits are included.
"The $6.4 million, we believe, obviously is exaggerated. I'm looking at other localities that have done it,'' Woerth said, adding that he thinks the city opted to put out the "worst-case scenario'' for fear of under-budgeting.
Woerth claims the city could make a transition to a city department for less than $1 million, and that cost can be paid off in the first year of operations because of cost savings related to profit margins and because firefighters have offered not to participate in the state's public service retirement system for at least six months.
"We wouldn't be getting anything different than what we got now. Certainly, nothing better,'' Lane said.