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Watchdog group questions fire authority

Scott Orr / Daily Courier<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->Fire Chief Scott Freitag explains the “fire authority” concept that would bring together the Central Yavapai and Chino Valley fire districts at a joint board meeting Wednesday, July 29.

Scott Orr / Daily Courier<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->Fire Chief Scott Freitag explains the “fire authority” concept that would bring together the Central Yavapai and Chino Valley fire districts at a joint board meeting Wednesday, July 29.

PRESCOTT – The Citizens’ Tax Committee, which bills itself as a taxpayer watchdog, is questioning the Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority (CAFMA) about its governing board’s make-up and how it plans to save taxpayer money, according to a statement written by Committee President John Lamerson.

CAFMA was formed by combining the staffs of the Central Yavapai and Chino Valley Fire Districts, but not their governing boards, which retain taxing authority. The two boards agreed to the state’s first Joint Powers Authority structure in October, 2015, and the agreement took effect July 1, 2016. The goals was to save money by combining forces and through economies-of-scale benefits.

Lamerson said that he only became aware of the combined force when he heard the term “Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority” on the radio in “July or August” when he heard the word “medical.”

“It didn’t come on to our radar screen,” Lamerson said. “We didn’t know about it because we weren’t really paying attention to it.”

The Committee’s statement, titled. “CAFMA, who ever heard of it,” outlines two “observations.”

The first is the issue of representation on the CAFMA board. It’s currently composed of five members, two from each of the boards of directors that make up CAFMA – CYFD and CVFD– and a fifth, chosen by the other four from the remaining members.

“The CYFD representation on the CAFMA board lacks proportionality of voter population & budget,” the statement said, noting that “the population of CYFD is 73,000 and CVFD is 12,000,” and that the CYFD budget is $17.1 million and CVFD budget is $4.2 million. “Therefore, CYFD has approximately 85 percent of the population and 80 percent of the budget.”

Lamerson said that, once the money is combined into one account, Chino Valley has more control over it than it should have, based on its population.

“The CAFMA board should have seven members … and five of those members should be from CYFD and two members from Chino Valley,” he said.

CAFMA Fire Chief Scott Freitag said the number of members being equal, plus one from either district, was intentional.

“The intent of the two agencies was to find a partnership, and in partnerships there is some form of equalized representation,” Freitag said. “Certainly, CYFD’s board could have gone in and said, ‘Hey, you know what? We’re going to go with three and you’ll have two because we bring the most to the table.”

The CYFD board currently has the majority of members on the combined board, three to two.

The second observation the committee offered has to do with “strategies to save taxpayer funds,” and, the statement goes on to list ways the Committee believes the Authority could save money, from competitive bidding for buildings, to having contracted with Chino Valley for fire protection instead of absorbing the CVFD, to the use of volunteers.

Freitag said the competitive bidding complaint apparently originated with the purchase of the new CAFMA headquarters in the 8600 block of Eastridge.

Noting that there is no statute in Arizona requiring a fire authority to go out for bids on property, Freitag said, “To be honest with you, we’d never heard of that before.

“Apparently, the federal government uses that kind of procurement standard” for buying buildings, he said. “What I know of federal government procurement standards is, they are the ones who brought us the $800 hammer and the $1,200 toilet.”

The issue of contracting with the Town of Chino Valley for fire service was precluded by the fact that a fire district already existed there. “I don’t think they understand what they’re saying” from a legal standpoint, he said.

Volunteers are already in use in the CAFMA offices, but volunteer firefighters aren’t a viable resource anymore, he said. “The Arizona Volunteer Firefighters Association has disbanded because of a lack of participation, (and) volunteer agencies within the state of Arizona are struggling to get volunteers.”

Freitag bristled at the statement’s claim that “it is incumbent on our government leaders to think ‘outside the box’ to identify and evaluate cost saving alternatives.”

“Us? We do that with everything we do,” Freitag said. “We are beyond thinking outside the box – we’re not in a box.”

Freitag said the Citizens’ Tax Committee had a two-hour meeting with CAFMA officials to address concerns that the CAFMA was illegal because of the way it is funded, but that CAFMA attorney Nick Cornelius was able to explain that it is, in fact, a legal way to operate.

Lamerson denied that the Committee ever had such concerns. “No, we’ve never had that concern. I don’t know who you talked to. It wasn’t us.”

“We must recognize that consideration of these kinds to reforms will naturally face bureaucratic resistance, which is why meaningful citizen oversight is so important,” the statement said.

“It’s easy to sit back and throw stones,” Freitag said.

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