Colorado River Fire Rescue response times could hinge on upcoming mill levy vote
Colorado River Fire Rescue’s service capabilities were dealt another blow last week — and another is expected soon.
“We just sold an ambulance yesterday,” CRFR Chief Leif Sackett said Friday. “Within the next week, we will have one of our reserve engines that we sold to a department in Ohio leave as well.”
On Nov. 2, district voters will be asked to support a mill levy increase that could help the financially strapped fire district recuperate from substantial losses. A combination of a declining oil and gas industry and decreases in property valuations in 2016 led to CRFR’s budget shrinking by about 35% or about $2.4 million.
Rifle City Council member Brian Condie said the mill levy increase is needed.
“I think they’ve done a great job with what they’ve been given, and if they can get some more money, that service will go up for sure,” Condie said. “But if they don’t get the money they need, the service will go down. I mean, that’s, that’s obvious.”
CRFR has relied heavily on reserves to temporarily shore up its budget, but is now forced to sell equipment in order to make ends meet. Sackett said the district that covers more than 25,000 residents over a 851-square-mile radius across Western Garfield County has already sold wildland engines, a ladder truck and a hazmat rig, Sackett said.
“It’s tough to do when we used to have the staffing and personnel to keep those apparatus in service,” he said. “It’s a hard thing to do to make those cutbacks, but we’re doing everything we possibly can to help bring in revenue any way possible.”
The mill levy will work in a phased-in funding proposal. If the mill levy passes, voters should see 3 mills added to their property taxes through 2026.
In total, CRFR is asking up to $48.26 per $100,000 of a home’s actual market value.
According to the district, CRFR’s tax-funded budget was $6.61 million in 2016 and decreased to $4.11 million 2017 and has stayed level since. If all three phases of the mill levy are enacted, it would bring CRFR’s tax funded revenues to approximately $7.4 million. That would bring CRFR’s budget back to what it was in 2016 with an additional 12% to account for 2% inflation per year.
In May 2020, CRFR had previously asked district voters to pass another major mill levy, a request that failed by 250 votes. The defeat prevented the district from filling six vacant positions, and Station No. 43 in south Rifle was closed.
Currently, the district deploys 11 personnel per shift, with 33 shift personnel in total, Sackett said.
“We’re looking at reducing staffing further and possibly closing another station,” he said. “If we do that, our response times are going to increase more.”
This could increase CRFR’s average response time by 10 minutes.
CRFR Lt. Landon A. Churchill said further decreased staffing would diminish the district’s ability to respond to larger fires, like box stores or large structure fires.
It takes even more personnel to cover multiple calls at the same time.
“Fires double in size about every 30 seconds or so,” he said. “If you don’t receive medical care within about the first five-ish minutes of a major medical emergency, your chances of surviving or not having long-term damage decrease drastically.”
Churchill said it’s hard to distribute CRFR’s resources wide enough to bring response times under five minutes.
“The greatest challenge that we’ve had is that we are very often called to do a lot of work with very few people,” he said. “Lately we’re very commonly having six, seven or eight people working a day. If a house were on fire, that’s not enough people to really put it out effectively, in the time frame that we need to.”
Churchill can’t overstate it. Echoing his chief, he said the mill levy failing could mean further closures of CRFR stations. This could lead to five or six full-time staff covering three towns per day.
The results could be catastrophic, Churchill said.
“It’s a difficult, difficult job for everybody,” he said. “The other side of that coin is, it’s exponentially more dangerous for us.”
According to a Friday news release, the New Castle Town Council has already officially provided its support for the proposed CRFR mill levy.
“On September 21, the New Castle Town Council approved Resolution TC2021-13 titled ‘A resolution of the New Castle Town Council supporting the Colorado River Fire Rescue district’s ballot issue to be decided by the voters at the November 2, 2021 election,'” the release states. “The resolution notes the value and importance of CRFR to the town and the positive impact that passage of Ballot Issue 6A will have on the health, safety and welfare of the Town and its residents.”
On Aug. 10, 2021, the fire district’s board of directors adopted the following phased-in mill levy increase ballot issue to be submitted to the voters during the coordinated election the Garfield County Clerk and Recorder will conduct on Nov. 2, 2021:
Shall Colorado River Fire Protection District taxes be increased $4,873,747.72 (final 2026 fiscal year amount after all phased-in increases) annually from an additional 6.75 phased-in operating mill levy imposed at a rate of 3 mills in 2021 (collected in 2022), an additional 2 mills in 2023 (collected in 2024), and an additional 1.75 mills in 2025 (collected in 2026), for the purposes of providing fire protection, ambulance, emergency medical response, rescue, safety and support services by the district, including but not limited to:
• Addressing lost revenue and budget constraints on the district’s revenues caused by economic downturn;
• Addressing community growth by recruiting and retaining firefighters and paramedics to maintain emergency response times and emergency services and bring their salaries in line with nearby communities;
• Providing training and life-saving medical, fire and other emergency response techniques to promote firefighter and citizen safety;
• Ongoing maintenance and scheduled replacement of fire, medical and rescue equipment, fire trucks and ambulances to maintain reliability and protect first responders and citizens;
• Ensuring financial transparency and accountability by making the most current district budget and audit available to every taxpayer on the district’s website;
And shall all revenue and any earnings on this phased-in tax constitute a permanent voter-approved revenue change within the meaning of Article X, section 20 of the Colorado constitution and an exception to the limitations set forth in section 29-1-301 of the Colorado revised statutes, and any other law?
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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