County to help Vail pay for Vail Pass work
How much work?
Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller says responding to accidents and incidents on Vail Pass accounts for about 10 percent of all the department’s work.
“We can be up there five or six times a day in the winter,” Miller said. “And every one of those trips can take hours.”
VAIL — Vail Pass doesn’t look like a no man’s land, but it is, at least where emergency services are concerned.
The stretch of Interstate 70 from the town’s eastern boundary to the top of Vail Pass runs through national forest land and is outside of any town or special district boundaries. But out of what Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller calls a “moral obligation,” that department responds to accidents and other incidents along that stretch of highway. Crews have done that since Vail has had a fire department.
The work is often dangerous — the department had two trucks badly damaged at accident scenes last winter. The work is also expensive, costing Vail taxpayers about $150,000 per year. No other agency is really able to respond to Vail Pass accidents, so for the past several years Miller has looked for other agencies to help the town pay for the service it provides.
Bit of Relief
A bit of relief came recently, when the Vail Town Council and the Eagle County commissioners signed an agreement for the county to pay $87,500 this year to help cover the fire department’s costs.
At an Oct. 21 meeting, Vail Mayor Andy Daly called the agreement a “considerable compromise,” and thanked Miller for getting the deal done.
The money from the county comes from a federal program called “Payment in Lieu of Taxes.” That program pays local governments with large parcels of federal lands, since those public lands aren’t on the property tax rolls.
Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said those federal funds are crucial in areas with few people and lots of land. Places such as Ouray, Hinsdale and Jackson counties depend on federal payments to help balance their budgets.
Chandler-Henry said many counties use those federal funds to help pay for police, fire department and ambulance service trips onto public lands. That’s why Chandler-Henry and fellow commissioner Jill Ryan recently voted to use a portion of the federal money coming to Eagle County for emergency services on Vail Pass.
Like Miller, Chandler-Henry called Vail fire’s response to Vail Pass accidents a moral imperative.
“We felt like the county has that moral responsibility, too,” she said, adding that even if the Vail Fire Department expanded its district boundaries to the top of the pass, the town still wouldn’t receive any property tax money.
‘Down to the Last Minute’
The contract between the town and county — called an intergovernmental agreement — will have to be renewed every year. And, Chandler-Henry said, while the funds from the feds come every year, there are often questions about how much is coming and when.
“It seems like (payment) is always down to the last minute,” she said.
With that in mind, Chandler-Henry said he believes future commissioners will see paying for fire service on the pass as a priority.
And, Miller said, the town and county will keep asking state and federal agencies to help pay for the essential work his department does on the pass.
It’s unlikely other partners will be found — this is something the town has asked about for years. But Vail Town Council member Greg Moffet said the county’s contribution is a “great first step” toward covering the town’s costs.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.