By Henry Twombly, Sedona Resident
(June 15, 2017)
The Wizards continue to cast their misbegotten spells over Sedona, as we resident taxpayers are being set up for a series of three wham-bam GO bonds and/or a property tax in the next few years. We already know about the first one – the $18m Sedona Fire District bond proposal, which its Board will undoubtedly approve. From the beginning (late January) its media campaign has been a snow job with a coyness about whether or not there would even be a bond. This immediately struck me as misleading if not duplicitous since SFD had already commited $25,000 for a Citizens Advisory Committee and $57,000 for architects’ consulting fees. Moreover this campaign has been helped by the Sedona Red Rock News. Since then there have been many articles about the SFD: e.g., “SFD to replace aging station” (1/25); “SFD explores potential bond” (1/27); “SFD needs taxpayers’ help to see if a potential bond is necessary” (2/1); three articles about the bond group (2/15), (2/22),(3/5); “75 train at Crescent Moon to fight wildfire” (3/31); “SFD celebrates its diamond anniversary” (4/7); “Garland backs new fire station” (4/21); “SFD use kitchen fire as a reminder, warning” (5/3). This is just a smattering, but you get the idea. And this is not to mention its May 3rd issue which was dedicated to the SFD; its editorial lauded SFD for its 60 years of service to the community, which all of us residents appreciate. Yet this edition also featured a guest perspective by an SFD employee fear-mongering about the next wildfire (“It’s not a matter of if but when another significant fire impacts the area.”) and another article implying that the bond (if it occurred) would be a citizens’ initiative and the process would be “balanced and fair,” where “everyone gets a say.”
The author was referring to the Governing Board and the Citizens Advisory Committee. The Board is “made up of five elected officials who represent their constituency – which are the people who live in the district…” This is partially true. Only two current members were elected back in 2010. The other three have been appointed. The recall election in 2012 notwithstanding, there has been no general election for the Board since 2010…in part due to the appointments and the department’s preference not to replace these members. In a June 22, 2016 SRRN article that announced the purchase of a second $600,000, 10-story fire engine as backup, a SFD official stated that if no one else ran for the Board, there would be no need for an election and that would save the SFD $60,000. In regards to the Citizens Advisory Committee, the SFD and its committee members orchestrated their presentations to convince the citizen contingent of the need for the bond. Perusing most of their meeting minutes, I didn’t find any discussions about alternative budget planning that would substitute for and avoid a bond proposal. But they did discuss the consequences of what would occur if the bond didn’t pass. So it seems that the “Citizens” Advisory Committee was set up to rubberstamp the SFD’s need for a bond – which wouldn’t be surprising since this seems to be a common practice in city politics.
There are more instances of smoke-and-mirrors in the presentation of their PR campaign. Some of it is trivial yet (un- or)consciously symptomatic of spin. In terms of the assessment, the original phrase was “$22 a year in additional taxes for homeowners per $100,000” of assessed property value – all in hopes that the $22-a-year mnenomic would stick with residents when it came time to vote. The dollar amount per $100,000 kept changing – down to $17 (to make the bond more palatable) even after the amount of the bond went up to $18m. But that was quickly corrected to $20 per $100,000. In the first SRRN article (1/25) SFD was only going to replace Station 4. In the next it was Station 4 and 5. In the next they wanted to include renovations on Station 1 and 3 and a temporary $1m headquarters (while one station was being torn down and rebuilt). As a by-the-way addendum they also wanted to pay off their loan for the construction of Station 6. More recently they included another “$1 miilion for a proposed new maintenance facility for Station 1, and upgrade to SFD’s telecommunication towers and equipment or [and] an additional 10 to 15 percent to cover costs such as architectural, engineering and city fees” (SRRN 5/19). So SFD seems to keep adding items to its wish list, as if we residents are Santa Claus. The loan payment for Station 6 has dropped under the radar, and rumor has it something else may be under the radar – payment for some arrears due to the firefigthers’ pension fund…which all seems possible since when all the costs (using the higher estimates) are tabulated, there seems to be $2-3m of unallocated funds.
More egregious in its smoke-and-mirrors display is the SFD’s concept of “intergenerational equity – sharing the cost burden with those who will reap the benefits for decades to come.” This is just doublespeak for we’ll be paying this bond for a very long time. It’s not like the next generation is going to come into the ring, tag-team us out, and we can stop paying the bond. But this concept brings up the question of how many years will we be paying off the bond. Moreover since our property values get reassessed and go up every year (no more than 5% annually due to state law), won’t we be paying 5% more on our $20 per $100,000 every year? Furthermore there’s been no mention about who’s paying the interest on the $18m bond. I imagine it’s us residents. I’d wish the SRRN would do their own independent research and write an investigative expose that would answer these questions and provide a detailed, itemized list of earmarked costs. Another question to be answered is whether or not firefigthers are being overpaid, when compared to Flagstaff, Prescott, and the other districts in the Verde Valley.
I truly honor and respect the great job and service that SFD provides to the community; I just don’t honor and respect their mismanagement of funds. More disturbing is that they are not taking responsibility for the financial mess they’ve created. It’s not like they didn’t see the necessity for these repairs coming; they just didn’t prioritize them. If they had, there would most likely not be as much structural damage; and buildings could’ve been renovated and not replaced. In the 1990s the Uptown station had serious structural problems that were never addressed. A 2007 committee pointed out the same needs for renovation and replacement of buildings as now. But nothing was ever done. Instead they built more fire stations (a boon to the construction industry, one of our 3 Wizards), bought two $600,000, 10-story fire engines plus a $3,200 drone, and lots of telecommunications equipment so they could become a regional communication center. Futhernore they bought “past years of experience for operational personnel to join PSPRS (state retirement system) and for administrative staff to become part of the state plan. These buy-ins were especially unique because employees already had a plan; changing did not require a bonus” (the Hatlers’ Letter to the Editor 2/3/17). In other words SFD wasted money, duplicating a plan to pad their pockets. In short SFD has been negligent in maintaining its infrastructure, which is similar to the City building unnecessary parks, a $1m wasterwater bird sanctuary, and a $1m elevator uptown instead of completing the decades-old storm drainage project.
So now like the too-big-to-fail banks of 2008, the SFD wants us residents to bail them out. They argue “the district would not be able to fund capital at the needed $2.5 million level for 10 years because the state-mandated mil rate [tax per dollar of assessed value of property] cap would be exceeded in years nine and 10.” (SRRN 5/19). In other words they will have been so fiscally irresponsible that they will have maxed out the mil rate. Moreover in light of SFD’s recent budget, they have learned nothing about fiscal responsibility. The $16,994,094 is “an increase of nearly $1.1 million over the current fiscal year budget of $15,854,789 or around 6.8 percent. Included in that are a few new non firefigther positions, fleet maintenance, an increase in training, a 3 percent cost of living bump and bond-related expenditures [probably some for SRRN advertising right before the vote]. The bulk of the budget comes by way of wages and benefits at nearly $12.7 million, while $2.8 million falls under the operational fund.” What does the remaining $1.4 million fall under? Well, if the SFD is trying to convince us to support a bond, you’d think they’d show some fiscal responsibility and not increase their budget – not hire new employees, not give the 3% bump, sell one of the two $600,000 fire engines, etc. Alas they show no remorse, no sign of changing their profligate ways and seem to be assuming that the bond will pass.
Come November, the choice is ours. To pass the bond or not to pass the bond – that is the question. Inform yourself as best you can and vote your conscience. Obviously I’m voting against it because I think a little bit of belt-tightening and reordering of its priorities would be a good thing for SFD.
Henery, go to our website, http://www.arizonaliberty.us
Charts, graphs and a link to our video. The fire board meeting is the 21st. Please be there.
Henry: Here’s our YouTube Channel video