In an attempt to address the lack of financial and personnel resources at the neighboring agency, the Rio Rico Fire District will oversee operations and management at the Nogales Suburban Fire District.
The intergovernmental agreement, officially approved by both districts’ governing boards last week, will also serve as a test run to gather more information about Nogales Suburban’s needs for a potential consolidation of the two fire districts in the future.
“Both districts are still going to remain separate entities… They’re going to give us their tax revenue and whatever dollars to help them with operational and administrative stuff,” RRFD Chief Adam Amezaga told the NI.
“Then the end goal is that we would like to merge and consolidate into one department,” he added.
The Nogales Suburban Fire District covers an area of approximately 21 square miles and 3,000 inhabitants immediately north and east of Nogales city limits. RRFD’s jurisdiction includes approximately 42 square miles and 11,000 residents, and it has a budget approximately 10 times larger than Nogales Suburban.
Michael Carlson, an RRFD governing board member, explained that the two districts have been exploring the idea of merging for several years now.
Due to the smaller staff and more limited resources at Nogales Suburban, Carlson said, RRFD has been responding to a large portion of its neighbor’s calls through regular agency assists, mostly for medical emergencies.
“So when there was a thought of a potential merger, it was the rational thing to do,” he said.
But after the two districts hired an independent consultant to examine a consolidation, officials decided it wasn’t the right time for such a big step.
“We don’t have enough information to make sure that it was beneficial for the citizens of Rio Rico Fire District, as well as Nogales Suburban,” Carlson said.
Instead, the two districts formed the intergovernmental agreement, which will take effect on March 7.
Chief Carlos Parra of Nogales Suburban said the new agreement will benefit the personnel currently working at the district, as well as the residents who live within its boundaries.
“Most of all, my concern is protection and also being able to provide the best medical services to the community… This provides better service, more ambulance service,” Parra said.
He added that, throughout the pandemic, there has been high attrition at Nogales Suburban as employees have decided to retire early for health and safety purposes. That has limited the services the district has been able to provide for itself.
Amezaga added that since Nogales Suburban can only offer part-time positions, some staffers there have opted to leave for other districts that offer a full-time schedule.
Speaking last Friday, Parra declined to provide an exact count for the number of fire personnel currently employed at Nogales Suburban, but said it was a “short count.”
Both fire chiefs added that part of the IGA calls for bringing on more part-time employees, solely to serve the two Nogales Suburban stations – one in the Chula Vista neighborhood and the other on State Route 82, just west of the Santa Cruz River.
“We’re looking at anywhere between nine to 12 part-time employees,” Amezaga said. “We are going to upstaff… to have personnel available at one of the (NSFD) stations at this time, with hopes of growing to have both stations fully staffed.”
Those new positions will be solely funded through Nogales Suburban tax revenue, he said.
As for whether that could mean a tax increase, Phil Damon, Nogales Suburban’s finance director, said the district’s tax rate is already at $3.25 per $100 of assessed value, the maximum allowed by state law, “so it can’t go up any more.”
As they move forward with the agreements, Amezaga and Carlson of RRFD both expressed hope that the two agencies would be able to gather enough information to successfully merge and consolidate the two districts in the future.
“Short-term goal is that we’re helping out a neighbor, we’re helping out a community, we’re making sure that the services of that community are met,” Amezaga said.
For his part, Parra said he felt more confident about the future.
“I’m happy that this turned out this way,” Parra said, adding that he plans to retire soon. “I wanted to make sure that, before I walked out, that someone else would cover it and make sure the protection continues to be there for the community.”