Firefighters face mounting costs
EAGLE – The call comes in at 9:05 a.m.: A small grass fire has started near Wolcott. But by the time the fire department can round up enough volunteers and drive to the location, a morning breeze has kicked into high gear and the small fire is now an inferno, scorching several acres.This specific scenario never happened. And, if the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District is successful in next month’s election, they hope to be better equipped to put out or prevent such a fire.On May 2, voters whose residences and businesses lie within the Greater Eagle River Fire Protection District’s jurisdiction will be asked to approve a property tax increase.To tax payers, this boils down to some meaningful numbers. If the increase is approved, property taxes will go from $63.10 per $100,000 value of a home, to $79.60 – an increase of $16.50 per year per $100,000. That would net the fire district an additional $321,000 annually.But why raise property taxes at all? “The reason we need it is because of the growth and the calls for service,” Chief Jon Asper says. Recent estimates put area growth at as much as 25 percent in the past year.”Basically, we’ve got a district that’s experiencing a lot of growth with lots of new subdivisions going in,” said Roxie Deane, a member of the fire district’s board of directors.
Some of those subdivisions and projects include Eagle Ranch, the Bluffs, Saddleridge, Buckhorn, Frost Creek and the newly planned Costco outside of Gypsum. As the district grows, it takes longer for emergency crews to reach outlying. “Things are getting further and further out,” says Deane. “We don’t want to lose what we have. We have a good reputation for being there when needed.”The Greater Eagle Fire District covers 196 square miles. It stretches up Brush Creek and down to the other side of Airport Road; reaches above Eby Creek Mesa and then extends east to Wolcott. The boundary lies four miles north of Wolcott, therefore excluding State Bridge, Bond and McCoy. Increased callsWith the growth has come an increased number of calls, says Kevin Klein, owner of Public Safety Consultants, consultant for Greater Eagle Fire Protection District. Most of the calls are coming from the Eagle area, but new development in Gypsum and Wolcott could change that.”All the sudden you have people where in the past there weren’t people there. People cause emergencies,” says Klein.
In 1998, the district had 606 emergency calls. Last year, the district had 896 calls. In January of 2006 alone, the district experienced 519 calls, a whopping 16 percent increase. Those calls included everything from house fires, car crashes, medical emergencies and hazardous waste spills. The fire district wants to build a new fire station in the Brush Creek area. With Eagle Ranch already in the area, and the Adam’s Rib project underway, call volume is expected to increase even further in that direction.”If we put our station up there (Brush Creek), it will be safer,” Asper saysThe Greater Eagle Fire Protection District is manned in part by paid staff and the rest by volunteers. “We’d be overrun right now if we didn’t have volunteers,” Asper says.Twenty-six volunteers have already logged 3,257 hours in just the first three months of 2006. Deane says the volunteer pool is shrinking at the same time the district’s need for personnel is growing. New firefighters also mean the need for more training and more equipment – from fire trucks to defibrillators. Additionally, as more complex buildings go up in the district, even seasoned firefighters need continued training. Last January, fire district personnel logged 1,041.5 training hours.”What we’re trying to do is to get quality people there who are trained and equipped, and in time to do something,” says Klein.
Impact feesAren’t these the very issues the impact fees recently adopted by the town of Eagle and Eagle County were supposed to address, you might ask?You’d be right … but, only in part. The impact fee requires new developments to pay a per-unit fee toward emergency services, including fire department coverage. When Eagle Ranch was developed, for instance, it paid toward fire protection. “We have an impact fee that has helped,” Deane says. It has allowed the district to set aside a portion of its budget for the new station, but the fees alone won’t pay for a firehouse.Additionally, impact fees have very specific limitations. Robert Cole, senior partner of Collins Cockrel & Cole of Denver, and the attorney for the fire district, says that state law prohibits impact fees for being used for any kind of operational expenses. “It’s a pretty specific definition; it has to be used for capital assets that have a life of at least five years,” such as trucks and equipment, he says. “You can’t use it to hire people, and you can’t use impact fees to pay the phone bills or the gas bill,” elaborates Chief Asper.Vail, Colorado