GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Though separated by geographical boundaries, fire chiefs from three area fire districts say they are united in urging voters throughout the region to support tax proposals meant to maintain current service levels.
“This is a regional problem,” said Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Gary Tillotson, referring to a drop in property valuations in recent years all across Colorado.
“We’re not trying to build empires here, we’re just trying to overcome what this downturn in the economy has presented to us,” Tillotson said.
The drop in property valuations has impacted fire districts in particular, which are almost exclusively funded by property taxes, he and fellow fire chiefs Ron Leach from Carbondale and Dave Vroman from Gypsum said during a joint interview last week.
“Property tax is the only way we can be funded, that’s just the way these things were set up,” Leach said. “This isn’t just us saying we need more money, this is an essential service to the community that needs to be supported.”
Added Vroman, “Nobody really knew what the recession was going to do to us.
“We held out as long as we could, but we’re down to no other alternative [besides a tax increase] except reducing services,” he said of the impact on the Gypsum Fire Protection District.
Voters in eastern Garfield County, including Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, plus the rural Carbondale-, Redstone- and Marble-area portions of Pitkin and Gunnison counties, as well as Gypsum and western Eagle County, will see three separate fire district tax questions on their ballots for the Nov. 5 election. Ballots are expected in the mail this week.
Question 2A in the city of Glenwood Springs and 5A in the Glenwood Rural Fire Protection District each seek voter approval in the Nov. 5 mail ballot election for a 2-mill increase in the local property tax to make up for a shortfall in revenue to support fire and ambulance services.
In the rural service area, the tax would represent an increase in the existing mill levy, while the in-city tax would be in addition to the existing portion of the Glenwood Springs sales tax that goes to fund the fire department.
The proposals call for both new Glenwood Springs-area taxes to end after five years, although they could be presented again to voters to be re-authorized at that time.
Likewise, the neighboring Carbondale and Rural and Gypsum Fire protection districts are also going to their voters seeking a tax increase to make up for anywhere between a 23 percent and 40 percent drop in property taxes over the past five years.
Ballot Question 4B for Carbondale and rural district voters seeks the extension of a mill levy increase that was approved by voters two years ago, but which is set to expire this year.
It also asks for an additional levy to help make up what has turned into a $1 million annual shortfall in the budget to maintain existing service levels.
“We thought it was a good idea to do a sunset two years ago,” Leach said. “We were still in the middle of the recession then, and we really had no idea how long it would take to recover.”
The latest proposal does not have a sunset clause, meaning the tax increase would be in perpetuity unless the fire district’s board of directors votes to reduce it or issue a tax credit to district taxpayers.
“We want to fix this funding problem for the long-term now, so we’re not having to go back to voters every two years,” Leach said.
A 23 percent drop in property valuations in the western part of Eagle County is also the reason the Gypsum Fire District is asking for a six-year, 3.5 mill levy increase.
“This is to hold service levels where they are today, not add anything new,” Vroman said. “A 23 percent decrease in our funding levels means we will have to lay off folks if this doesn’t pass.”
Vroman said his district has also been “limping along” with aging equipment, including a 22-year-old tender truck that will need to be replaced sometime in the next few years, he said.
The Gypsum district covers a 455-square-mile area stretching from the Hanging Lake Tunnels on Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon to — and including — the Eagle County Airport and adjacent commercial areas. It also covers the area up Cottonwood Pass to the Garfield County line, and the Sweetwater Road area in far eastern Garfield County.
While the Gypsum Fire District does not provide ambulance service (the separate Eagle County Paramedic Services runs the ambulance in that area), another common denominator for Glenwood Springs and Carbondale is a continuing drop in both individual patient and Medicare reimbursements for ambulance services.
About 65 percent of Glenwood Springs Fire Department calls are EMS (emergency medical services), requiring an ambulance transport.
However, ambulance billing only accounts for about 15 percent of the city and rural district’s revenues, Tillotson said.
The city tax question alone, which would generate about $369,000 annually, is partly intended to make up an approximately $250,000 annual shortfall in reimbursements for ambulance transports. That shortfall has resulted in a subsidy from the city’s general fund to make up the difference.
“That’s a significant subsidy for EMS that the general fund is having to bear,” Tillotson said.
Leach said the Carbondale district also only receives about 50 cents on the dollar for ambulance service billing.
“That doesn’t even come close to paying for the costs of ambulance service,” Leach said.
A large percentage of the Carbondale district’s paid staff are paramedics, while the firefighting side of the district relies largely on some 80 volunteer firefighters, Leach said.
“A 40 percent reduction in revenues for us will mean a reduction in paid paramedics, EMTs and firefighters,” he said in reference the drop in property taxes for the district over the last five years.
Leach said one of the biggest mutual concerns among all of the area fire districts is the threat of wildfire, which often crosses jurisdictional boundaries and requires regular coordination between agencies.
“Wildfire is the biggest threat in all of our communities, and it’s a very real threat,” he said. “Our fire departments are the our first line of defense, and none of these departments are big enough to deal with these wildfire events on their own.”
It’s another reason he said the different districts need to support each other and encourage voters across those jurisdictional lines to support their local district with tax dollars.
Added Tillotson, “If my staffing decreases, I’m less helpful to these other districts, and vice versa.”
The Glenwood Springs City Council and the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association board have both unanimously endorsed passage of the city and rural fire tax questions, along with support from the official Friends of the Glenwood Springs Rural Fire Protection District ballot issue committee.
Supporters point out that a reduction in firefighting service levels could result in a higher ISO (Insurance Service Organization) rating in future years for local districts, which can result in higher homeowners insurance premiums.
No organized opposition to the various fire district tax proposals has come forward.
“We’re not trying to build empires here, we’re just trying to overcome what this downturn in the economy has presented to us.”
Glenwood Springs Fire Chief