Glenwood fire district eyes ballot question
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – A true fire protection district covering the city and surrounding rural areas would be the best way to provide emergency fire and ambulance service in the future, in the opinion of Glenwood Rural Fire Protection District Board Chairman Bill Livingston.
He’s not alone in that assessment, either.
But selling voters on such a measure, including the necessary property tax mill levy required to fund an expanded fire district, would be a challenge, he said.
An even tougher sell may be to convince the powers that be in the city to give up control of the fire department, Livingston said at the fire district board’s regular monthly meeting Tuesday in Glenwood Springs.
“A fire district makes sense, but I don’t think the city wants to relinquish control,” he said.
Livingston’s comments came as the board wrestled with ways to address a projected $220,000 budget deficit for next year.
The shortfall is in the rural district’s proportional share of the overall $3 million Glenwood Springs Fire Department operating budget, as spelled out in an intergovernmental agreement with the city.
Glenwood Springs is unique in the way it funds emergency services, using a combination of city general fund sales taxes, about $2.3 million a year currently, and rural district property taxes, about $374,000. Other revenues come from ambulance service fees.
Virtually every other community in the region, from Aspen to Parachute, have property owners pay into their respective fire protection district with no funding from the local municipal government.
Glenwood’s rural district covers about 64 square miles surrounding the city. It’s an independent taxing authority with its own elected board operating under an agreement with the city.
In return for the district’s property tax revenues, the city provides fire protection and ambulance service to the rural areas.
This year, the city agreed to shift about $55,000 from the district to the city as part of the funding formula. But the deficit will only continue to grow the way the cost share arrangement is written now, according to Glenwood City Manager Jeff Hecksel.
Hecksel, at the district’s May meeting and in a work session with City Council last week, presented three options for the district to consider:
• Reduce the fire department’s budget, including likely staffing and service level cuts (an option that could negatively affect the local fire insurance rating, increasing insurance rates for homeowners);
• Seek a mill levy increase in the rural district and have the city pay the additional costs to make up the deficit in the meantime; or,
• Terminate the intergovernmental agreement, and figure out some other way for emergency services to be provided to the rural areas.
Given the time constraints to meet a July 24 deadline to place a question on this November’s ballot, the fire district board agreed Tuesday to put together a ballot question for the May 2010 district election. Two board seats will also be up for election then.
What that question will be, exactly, will be the subject of ongoing discussions between the district board and the city over the coming months.
The district may ask for a mill levy increase adequate to meet its funding obligation. According to Hecksel, the district’s current tax levy of 6.5 mills is inadequate, and may need to be as high as 9 to 12 mills to meet funding obligations through 2015.
The bigger question may be whether to consider an expanded mill levy funded district sooner rather than later.
City Councilman Dave Sturges, who attended the fire district board meeting Tuesday, agreed with Livingston that a district is probably the best long-term solution.
“These discussions should be focused on the best way to deliver services over the long term, even though there may be some short-term fixes in the meantime,” Sturges said.
The district board will request to have a work session with City Council in July to discuss the mill levy options. Also on the table will be possible fire department cost reductions, especially those that would not affect service levels.
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