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Fire chief dubious of chances of recruiting enough volunteers

Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Mike Piper said he is ready to begin recruiting volunteers if asked to do so, even though he is skeptical about the chances of finding enough to help his department.Meanwhile, some members of the board of the Glenwood Springs Rural Fire Protection District are facing skepticism over their idea to expand the district to include the city. That would allow for funding the city’s portion of the department expenses through property taxes rather than sales taxes.Piper and board members discussed volunteers, taxes and other issues at the board’s meeting Monday. The board and city face a June 2 deadline to propose a plan aimed at avoiding a ratings downgrade that could result in sharply higher insurance premiums for some property owners inside the city and surrounding district.The city operates the department under an agreement with the district, and the two entities fund about three-quarters and one-quarter of its budget, respectively. The Insurance Services Office, which provides ratings used by many insurance companies to set premiums, has threatened to downgrade the department’s rating from a 4 to a 10 because of its inability to consistently respond to structure fires with at least four firefighters.Last week, City Council members agreed to explore options to address the staffing shortfall. These include more use of volunteers, changes to the department’s response protocol to emergency calls, pursuit of grants to help fund more staff, and trying to enlist employees of other city departments to help fight fires.Piper predicted that seeking to rely on volunteers probably wouldn’t work.”If it did, we would have been doing that already,” he said.In fact, Piper said, the department’s past use of volunteers fell by the wayside for several reasons, such as federal restrictions on the department’s ability to provide a stipend to recruit and retain volunteers, and the decision years ago to have the department cover ambulance calls along with fires.But City Council member Joe O’Donnell said a lack of money leaves no choice but to pursue more use of volunteers and reserve, or part-time, firefighters.Newly elected board member and president Bill Livingston said the department needs to at least try to find volunteers – perhaps in part by tapping people who work in town even if they don’t live here.”I think there is a pool of manpower here. … Maybe they aren’t out there, but I think we need to look to them,” he said.Some district board members also want the city to take a closer look at making the city part of the district. They have been frustrated because the city funds the department through sales taxes, which have been lagging in recent years. However, Glenwood Springs long has relied on sales taxes to fund a variety of city services because it is a resort town and regional shopping hub, meaning the tax burden is shared with people from outside of town.O’Donnell said expanding the district would require a big increase in city residents’ property taxes at a time in which they are in no mood to pay more taxes. In November, a quarter-cent tax increase to fund street projects passed by only 11 votes.But Harlan Porter, who was serving in his last meeting Monday as a district board member and its president, said winning voter support may be feasible.”I think it is, if the right people get behind it and spell out the things that we’ve talked about here,” he said.Piper said there’s an argument for going even further and creating a countywide fire district, which would get rid of a lot of special fire districts and do away with some illogical boundaries between districts.”But there’s a lot of established fire districts and that’s not going to happen,” he said.


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