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February 1, 2012
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Fire district adjusting to less money

AVON - No matter the state of the economy, it takes about 15 firefighters to effectively battle a house fire, say local fire officials.

Starting this year, the Eagle River Fire Protection District has lost about 25 percent of its property tax revenue - virtually its only source of steady income - because of falling property values in the valley. Facing a drop of about $1.7 million from its $7 million budget in 2011, district officials last year asked voters for a property tax increase that would have kept the district's revenues at 2011 levels through 2019.

Before the election, district officials said the drop in revenue might result in firefighter layoffs and station closures.

Voters still said no.

In the wake of that election, money is still tight, but no one is talking about permanently closing any of the district's stations.

But district chief Karl Bauer said some stations may be closed for a day, or a few days, at a time. The reason, he said, is that the district has cut all overtime pay. That means there won't be people available to cover shifts such as when a couple of people are on vacation and someone else has to take a sick day, for example.

If that happens - or, more likely, when it happens - that would leave a station short of a four-person crew. Since responding to a fire starts with four people on a truck, district officials would rather have an effective crew coming from farther away than a short-handed one that's in the neighborhood. That means stations might close until enough people are available.

Bauer said deciding which station to close in those conditions will depend on everything from the time of year to the perceived risk in various communities.

But if a station is closed, that may leave the entire department short of the 15-person crew needed to fight a house fire. And if there are two calls at once, at least one incident will be left short-handed.

"We may have as few as 14 firefighters for the entire district," Bauer said. "We would have had 20 two years ago."

But that's due to staffing shortages resulting from the end of overtime pay. The district actually has as many front-line firefighters as it did two years ago. Instead, managers and administrative employees have been cut.

The firefighting staff has stayed stable for a couple of reasons - there's public safety, of course, but there's also the matter of a federal grant the district received a few years ago. The terms of that grant, which paid for hiring and training nine firefighters, requires the district to keep its staff stable. Otherwise, the grant would have to be repaid.

That means the district is required to replace firefighters who resign.

Ed O'Brien, the chairman of the district's elected board of directors, said the district will continue to work with what it has, paying for some operating expenses from reserve funds.

But, he said, those funds will only last a few years.

Then there's the matter of all the county's taxing districts facing another drop in property tax revenue in 2014.

Bauer said that next drop could be another 10 to 15 percent.

If that happens, he said, "We'll really be up against it."

But, O'Brien said, there are no plans at the moment to ask voters again for more money.

Fellow board member Jennifer Cartmell-Hays said no matter what the board decides over the next couple of years, the district needs to do a better job of telling residents about the work it does.

"Last year firefighters called every registered voter in the district," Cartmell-Hays said. "One person in Edwards said, 'Why are you calling me? We're served by the Edwards volunteer fire department.'"

Whether the district decides to ask voters for more money or not in the next couple of years, Cartmell-Hays said the board and the staff are firm in one belief.

"Times are tough - we've got to get through this," she said.

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Feb 1, 2012 07:32PM Published Feb 1, 2012 07:25PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.