Fire district budget crunch has hit
AVON, Colorado – The Eagle River Fire Protection District usually operates five stations. Three times this month, the district has only had enough people to keep three of those stations open.
The fire district’s property tax revenue – which accounts for 85 percent of its income – has dropped by $1.7 million from 2011 to this year, due to declining property values. District officials last year asked voters for a property tax increase to keep its income at 2011 levels through the end of this decade. Voters said no.
That’s left the district scrambling to keep as many people working as possible. But people get sick, or hurt, or take vacations. In the past, the firefighters worked overtime to cover those shifts. But these days, there’s a strict no-overtime policy in place – there’s simply no money.
And without people, fire stations close, which means it might take longer for a crew to get to a fire.
District chief Karl Bauer said it can be tricky deciding which stations stay open and which close on those days.
“We consider population, we consider risk – but we can’t have one community shoulder the burden,” Bauer said.
And the risks can be markedly different in a district that stretches from Tennessee Pass to Wolcott.
In Cordillera, the western-most station, the risk is wildfire and how it might spread. In Minturn, the risk is a fire that spreads between old structures built close together.
“We’re really moving chess pieces,” Bauer said.
And there may be more of those pieces taken off the table in the next couple of years. Bauer said the district is filling holes in its budget with reserve funds. But that money will run out at the end of 2015 without severe budget cuts.
Another problem is yet another expected drop in property values, which will result in perhaps another 20 percent decline in revenue. Complicating matters further is a federal grant that a few years ago helped pay for nine firefighters. That grant, like most, came with strings attached – in this case, a requirement that the district keep its firefighting staff levels stable. That gives the district less flexibility in how it adapts to its new fiscal situation.
It also creates some unpleasant choices.
Using last week’s small brush fire in Wolcott as an example, Bauer said if that fire had sparked when the district had two closed stations, it would have created a tough choice for district managers.
“The choice is to send fewer people to the fire you have, or send everything you’ve got and hope you don’t have anything else,” Bauer said.
And the district’s staffing situation isn’t expected to improve any time soon. Bauer said the district may have to permanently close one or two stations over the next few years. Which stations might close hasn’t been discussed yet, he said.
Bauer Tuesday explained the district’s situation at an Avon Town Council meeting.
Council members had earlier emailed Bauer questions, mostly about response times and how those might be affected by the rolling closures.
Bauer said most homes in Avon can still expect a first truck to be on scene within 10 minutes. But getting a second truck to an emergency within 10 minutes is going to become more difficult, he said.
Council member Amy Phillips asked Bauer whether the service cuts might affect insurance rates.
The short answer is “maybe.”
The organization that performs fire safety ratings, ISO, will evaluate the district this year, Bauer said. Those new ratings will be given to insurance companies, which then set their rates.
Council member Buz Reynolds asked Bauer about the prospect of setting up a volunteer program, and, perhaps, putting a town water truck in Wildridge or other areas vulnerable to a wildfire.
Bauer said the district is looking at programs that allow residents to help without requiring them to become trained firefighters.
But, Bauer said, putting fire equipment into the hands of public works department employees could put them in danger, since wildland fires can get big so quickly. Just about any response other than hitting a small fire with an extinguisher or water-filled backpack is potentially dangerous.
But, for the forseeable future, fire service in the district is likely to slow down.
“I desperately wish I could provide a happier picture,” Bauer said.