Fire district still reeling from revenue drop

Lt. Eric Hill
Townsend Bessent | |

By the numbers

490 square miles: Size of the Gypsum Fire Protection District.

53 percent: Decline in the property tax revenue from 2008 to 2012.

$400,000: Estimated annual revenue that would be generated by the district’s proposed tax increase.

2006: Model year of the district’s most recently-purchased fire truck.

Also: This is a mail ballot only election. There’s no authorized place to drop ballots on May 3.

GYPSUM — The Vail Valley’s largest fire protection district is also its most poorly funded. That’s why residents and officials hope voters May 3 approve a proposed property tax increase for the Gypsum Fire Protection District.

This is the third time in as many years that the district — a separate entity from the town of Gypsum — has asked voters for a tax-rate increase. The first two proposals were rejected. This year, district officials say they’re working harder to earn approval for what they call a critical infusion of revenue.

“We need to make sure (residents) understand the need for this,” longtime Gypsum resident Barry Smith said.

Smith, a former firefighter, is a member of a citizens’ committee that recommended this year’s proposal. Smith said committee members believed, as he does, that it’s “important to recognize the problem” facing the district.

That problem is money.

District chief Justin Kirkland said that the district — which runs from Gypsum west to Dotsero, north to Burns, south to LEDE Reservoir and east to the east end of the Eagle County Regional Airport — depends almost entirely on property tax for its revenue. As the county’s assessed value dropped starting in 2009, the Gypsum Fire Protection District may have been hardest-hit of any of the valley’s taxing entities. Kirkland said the ultimate drop came to 53 percent. Since the state constitution caps the rate of increase for property taxes, only a fraction of that lost revenue has been recovered.

That leaves the district with aging equipment and a growing to-do list, Kirkland said.

Kirkland said the district’s newest fire truck is now 10 years old. Other front-line trucks are now more than 25 years old.

Smith said most fire districts try to upgrade their trucks every decade or so, something that simply hasn’t been possible.

“They’re keeping those vehicles running with duct tape and baling wire,” Smith said.

The “new” truck may pose the biggest problem. Kirkland said that truck’s manufacturer is no longer in business, which makes finding parts tricky.

“We’re looking for parts on eBay,” Kirkland said.

Besides the aging trucks, the district is also working to change the way it handles calls, meaning adding more professional firefighters to the staff.

The paid staff now is four full-time and six part-time firefighters. The department tried to keep at least two paid people in the station at all times. But, Kirkland said, there have been times he’s gone to calls by himself.

There’s still a good-sized list of volunteers, but Smith said it’s hard to count on those people, especially during the work week.

“When I started off as a volunteer in Glenwood (Springs), my employers all allowed me to leave when there was a call — but we had 160 calls a year back then,” Smith said. “Here, they have two or three calls a day.”

That load, combined with the fact that so many residents work out of town, means the district can’t rely on volunteers the way it once did, Kirkland said.

The bulk of the district’s volunteers on hand during weekdays is firefighter students at Colorado Mountain College. Kirkland said their help is welcome, but, after the district pays to train those students, they often find paid work elsewhere. That’s why a core group is essential, he said.

“Our ultimate goal is we’d like to be at three paid people on every day,” Kirkland said. “But we’ve dug such a big hole it’s going to take a while to get there.”

The proposed tax increase — which adds up to roughly $84 per year on $300,000 worth of residential value — is a permanent increase. Kirkland said the intent is to bring the Gypsum district’s tax rate into relative parity with the two other tax-fed fire districts in the valley. That long-term revenue stream will be needed to upgrade both the staff and the equipment it uses.

“We’re not asking for everything,” Kirkland said. “But we need a foundation to be sustainable.”

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