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Fire alarm 

Suddenly, concerns flare up about cost, sufficiency of fire service in growing WLR.

Talk about fire protection has taken an urgent tone lately at City Hall. Suddenly the Little Rock City Board of Directors is discussing publicly the need for more fire coverage - and whether it's a reason not to approve new annexation or recent applications for new development in West Little Rock. Directors from West Little Rock wards warn that the city's fire protection rating could drop - resulting in higher insurance rates for residents - if the city doesn't build more fire stations as soon as possible. They've sounded the alarm. Why, asks former City Director Paul Kelly and others, didn't they anticipate the need in the first place? Why did supporters of annexation - who included the very directors who are now so worried - in 1999 make plans for how to pay for future fire protection, instead of assuming the dollars arising from new development would take care of itself? "The writing was on the wall five years ago," Kelly said. In 1999, Deltic Timber successfully had 1,230 acres (the third phase of Chenal Valley) annexed into the city. Little Rock Fire Department officials said the annexation might not affect the city's fire protection rating at the time, but any further annexation would unless a fire station was built nearby. At the time, a city planning staff analysis said that for every $1 the city would invest in fire and police protection and infrastructure needs in that area it would gain $2.65 in revenue from property taxes, permit fees and sales taxes generated from the area. Their conclusion: Development in Chenal would pay for its share of fire protection costs (estimated at over $3 million for 20 years) after the land was more than half developed. Infrastructure costs would not outweigh revenues, the staff's report said. In 2000, 313 acres, north of Highway 10 between Northridge Road and Chenal Parkway, was annexed. Again, no thought was given to fire protection needs, or at least to the thought of whether the city could afford to extend service to meet the growth. Today, Chenal Valley is booming, with nine new neighborhoods in development and a second golf course. In the same time, the city's revenues have remained flat, budgets have been cut and, unless Little Rock prevails in a lawsuit over $3 million in county franchise fees, deeper budget cuts and layoffs are in its future. "If all this annexation is an economic boon to Little Rock, then where is the money?" Kelly asked. In hindsight, says City Director Brad Cazort - who fears the city could lose its high Class 2 fire protection rating unless a new station is built - admits nothing can be taken for granted. "We should have done a better job and made a stronger commitment to provide fire service at the time," he said. "If I knew then what I know now, the answer would have been different." City directors decided to leave a proposal to build a new fire station in last fall's capital improvement bond renewal because there were no funds available to operate the stations. Now, another annexation bid is up for approval: On March 2, the board will consider taking in 368 acres in Southwest Little Rock, between David O. Dodd and Crystal Valley roads, where developers plan to build up to 500 single-family homes. The Little Rock Fire Department has told city planning staff that, at more than 4 miles from the nearest fire station, the area is "beyond the limits for driving distance for any existing station." A new fire station would have to be built to serve the annexed area. Citing the need for a new fire station, and the lack of money to operate a new station even if the developer paid to build it, city staff at first recommended to deny the application. In response, the developers asked for an economic analysis, as had been done for the 1999 Chenal annexation. Using the same methodology it used in 1999, the city staff reported that "Costs will not 'outweigh' the expected revenue." Staff changed its recommendation to the Planning Commission, suggesting approval. If development goes as planned, 251 houses will be built on the site within five years. Ward 4 director Cazort contends that new developments do bring in the dollars promised, although he doesn't know how to quantify the actual revenue from those areas, save for increased property tax collections, which make up 12 percent of the city's general fund dollars. Ward 5 director Michael Keck has suggested it might be a good idea to put money generated from a particular neighborhood back in that neighborhood, rather than the general fund. City finance director Bob Biles said the city doesn't keep track of how much money a neighborhood generates. It's relatively small in terms of property tax against the span of city services. A mammoth subdivision with 1,000 quarter-of-a-million-dollar homes, would produces only about $250,000 a year in new city general fund money for a $100 million city government budget. Is the need for new fire stations in West Little Rock critical? Not at the moment, said new Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr, even if the city approves the southwest annexation. Much of the land is still undeveloped, and modern construction techniques make new buildings less susceptible to fire. (See sidebar.) "No community or individual is compromised for fire protection," she said. If there were a critical need for more West Little Rock fire stations now, City Manager Bruce Moore would find the money for them, she added. The city owns land for two more fire stations in West Little Rock: property at Taylor Loop and Rahling Road, the other at Highway 10 and Chenal Parkway. It does not own land in the proposed annexed area. Adding fuel to the flames is the recent development debate over a planned 300-unit apartment complex near state Highway 10 and Chenal Parkway, approved this week by the City Board. Developer Gene Pfeifer, in a letter to the city, noted that the land is an exact swap of land he owns in the area that is already zoned for apartments, and does not increase the number of units the fire department currently covers. He added that, unlike most single-family homes, his apartments will be protected with sprinklers. Chief Kerr said approval of the Pfeifer apartment complex won't have an immediate impact on the city's fire coverage, Kerr said. However, demand for more stations will grow as the developments build out over the next 5 to 10 years and if the stations aren't in place by then, the situation will be critical, she said. Cazort said that there may be some merit in asking developers to pay for some of the fire stations' cost. Director Joan Adcock agreed. But impact fees, added to the permit cost when developers turn raw land into housing, are not popular. They have been a tool to raise money to cover the cost of serving new areas in other parts of the country, but they've made only limited appearances in Arkansas. "Impact fees create a real interesting series of discussions," said Director Keck, and Adcock said she wouldn't consider impact fees until she got more data. Cazort maintains the city shouldn't assess an impact fee and require developers pay for improvements (streets and utility lines) in a subdivision at the same time. "Something does need to be addressed for resources outside of subdivisions," said director B.J. Wyrick, whose Ward 7 includes the proposed southwest annexation. "I'm not sure what that is." Without impact fees, sales taxes or cuts in existing budgets will be required to pay for any new fire stations. But two previous sales tax proposals for the Fire Department and other uses - in 1999 and 2002 - failed at the polls. "People generally don't vote for taxes unless they see the crisis," said Janet Berry, president of the neighborhood group Southwest Little Rock United for Progress. Which is why director Adcock said she wants to be "cautious" about the annexation. "Are we adding to [the fire protection problem] if we go ahead with another annexation?" she asked. Director Wyrick is inclined to vote for the annexation. She pointed out that commercial development in the area - like the Rave movie theater - has already created a need for more fire protection in the area. "The ox is already in the ditch," she said. Berry agrees. "Within the last two years, there have been two large subdivisions approved in that area [Culzean, a 100-lot neighborhood off David O. Dodd, and Greenwood Acres, which has 200 lots, on Stagecoach Road]. The truth is, any fire or police burdens are already there," she said. But Cazort still has some concerns. "Fire is one city service we have to provide immediately," he said.
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