The Green Valley Fire District is placing a bond proposition on the November ballot for the first time in its 45-year history.
The $13 million bond would pay for infrastructure investments and help the district achieve compliance with standards that changed since it was founded in 1975, and would improve the safety of its firefighting crew, according to GVFD Chief Chuck Wunder.
Plumbing, roof and electrical issues abound at fire station 152 on Camino Encanto in southern Green Valley – 35 years of use, 24/7, has left a noticeable mark in and outside the building.
Cracks in the concrete run the length and width of the station's driveways. The firefighter workout room shares space with a fire engine that, when it starts up, pours diesel exhaust into the room, covering workout machines, equipment and gear stored along its walls. Rusted swamp cooler air vents hang below water-impacted wood framing skylights.
In the main bay of the station, a makeshift turnout drying system — turnout is the gear they wear to battle fires — sits exposed among more engines. The walls are littered with repairs, and the exposed ceiling shows its age.
Wunder said the bond would improve services to the community in a number of ways, including infrastructure upgrades and improving the health and safety of the firefighters.
"It has to do with the safety of our firefighters," Wunder said. The bond prioritizes "things that are going to make it safer for our firefighters, such as anything that's going to reduce carcinogens."
He said firefighters have a significantly higher risk of getting cancer. Station 152 is not compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act and does not meet National Fire Protection standards.
The station does not have a diesel exhaust emission system. The new station would.
The bond would fund turnout extractors, specialized for more thorough cleaning.
"Firefighters are tested mentally and physically every day and on top of that have to worry about higher cancer risks due to the hazards we are exposed to," GVFD captain and Green Valley Firefighters Association president Thomas Beckel said.
When station 152 was built, standards were different, and not enough known about firefighter exposure to carcinogens such as arsenic, hydrocarbons and benzene.
Station 152 has a common dormitory which poses hazards to firefighting crews, Wunder said. Common dormitories are open and result in shared illness and disrupted sleep, taking its toll on the crew.
All of the district's newer stations have private bunk rooms.
"It is very important to provide individual quarters that allows firefighters to have a private, gender-neutral area for respite," Beckel said.
"When I started out in fire services, we didn't know any of that," Wunder said.
The bond would also fund a new ladder truck, new station generators, fencing perimeters, parking lot and cement repairs and a modern communications system.
Wunder said the current radio infrastructure is "certainly outdated," and a new digital alerting system would allow them to manage multiple calls at one time and increase communication speeds throughout the district's stations.
The district is eyeing the property, about five acres, west of Station 152 on the other side of South Camino Del Sol as the site for a new station anticipated to cost $5.9 million.
"We have a strategically located station now, we want to stick close to (it)," Wunder said, adding that land in the area is hard to come by. "If we move too far in one direction, it impacts our response times."
Wunder and the district have reached out to the property owner to explore "possible options," but they haven't "gotten too deep" into talks.
"I can't get too far ahead of myself because I don't have any money," he said.
If voters approve and GVFD could secure the property across the road station, they will convert 152 into a mechanic shop and logistics facility – a place to house supplies and equipment for which they currently lack space.
"Our mechanic has to work outside in the sun," Wunder said.
Beckel said having a space dedicated to repairing the district's fleet "will allow for critical issues to be addressed faster and translate into less down time."
If they couldn't acquire the land, they would likely have to take the current firehouse "down to the ground" and rebuild it in entirety, which "would not be ideal for us," Wunder said.
Funding's a 'challenge'
How have they gotten this far without a bond proposition?
"It's been a challenge," Wunder said.
The district funded stations 151 and 155, built in 2009, through certificates of participation – debt they continue to pay down.
Wunder anticipates a bond would allow them to get a better finance rate and pay off the district's old debt "at a much better rate."
"Right now, rates are outstanding for bonds," he said. "I think it's a better funding mechanism for the taxpayer."
Wunder said if the bond passes, "we're not going to come back and willy-nilly move this money someplace else."
The money would not go to raises or personnel and recruiting, he said.
"It has to, by law, be spent on these projects," he said. "In our strategic planning, we're focusing on stuff that's going to last us for the next 25 or 30 years."
What if it's not passed? Could these projects still be pursued?
Wunder said it would be up to the board of directors to decide.
"I think some of (the projects) are so significant in nature that it would be quite a tax burden for them to do out of our (management and operations budget)," he said. "I think doing it in this manner and spreading it over 20 years is a much better way of doing it."
Why is now the time for this measure?
"The cost will only go up the longer we wait," Tom Allen, a GVFD board member, said.