Local ﬁre district approves ballot language for election
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – As far as Clark Shivley is concerned, voters in the Eagle River Fire Protection District have a simple choice – five fire stations or three.
The district’s board of directors last week approved ballot language for a tax increase proposal. Voters will decide in the fall whether to approve the increase.
The district, which gets virtually all of its operating budget from property taxes, has been hit hard by the decline in local property values. The district has lost roughly $1.8 million per year in revenue because of that decline and expects to lose still more during the next round of county property valuations.
The district last year asked for a tax increase to cover the lost revenue and would have locked in the district’s revenue at about 2011 levels. That proposal was defeated by about 350 votes of roughly 4,000 cast.
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This year’s ballot proposal increases the “mill levy,” the amount of tax assessed, from last year’s question. But, Shivley said, this proposal would cover the expected decline in revenue that will start with 2014 tax collections.
Shivley said as property values increase, the district will lower the mill levy to maintain revenue at 2010 levels.
In a statement Wednesday, Jennifer Cartmell Hays, president of the board, wrote:
“We’ve reduced expenses dramatically, cutting 70 percent of our administrative staff, and have no resources to finance essential equipment such as additional wildland response vehicles. In 2012, we will have spent almost a quarter of the wildfire-response reserve to fund operations, and we still need to close stations intermittently. That reserve took us five years to build and was funded by careful planning and the conscious deferral of necessary equipment purchases and of salary increases for the last three years. The drought conditions and significantly heightened wildfire risks of this summer have highlighted the need to rebuild our resources.”
Shivley said the intermittent station closures will become permanent if voters don’t approve the ballot proposal. The district – which stretches from the top of Tennessee Pass to Wolcott but doesn’t include Vail – now operates five stations. Without more money, two of those stations will have to shut down.
Shivley said national standards state that fire stations in a district should be about five miles apart. That distance will increase without additional money, and that could mean increased insurance costs for residents.
Board member Darell Wegert said he asked his insurance agent about the possible effects on his bills in the future. That estimate was about $20 per year higher than his tax bill would be if the ballot issue passes.
Both Wegert and Shivley said the district this year needs to do a better job persuading voters about the need for more money.
Wegert said he heard some voters last year asking why the district needed more money after a new fire station had just been built in West Vail – by a different fire department with a different revenue source.
“People just think ‘fire department’ and don’t really know,” Wegert said.
To help get that message out, Wegert said he plans to talk to town boards, a tactic Shivley said all the board members plan to participate in.
“But we’re going to ask them to not just make a resolution but also to get out themselves and educate people,” Wegert said.
And, he added, he hopes to hear ideas from voters about how the district can operate more efficiently.
“I think people will have good suggestions,” Wegert said. “Why leave all the suggestions to us?”
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@
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