Rural firefighting stirs local politics
EAGLE COUNTY – The Bond/McCoy Volunteer Fire Department, and its rural jurisdiction, is being wooed by larger fire districts in more urbanized Avon and Eagle. At the urging of the Eagle County Board of Commissioners, the volunteer firefighters are considering joining either the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District – which covers Eagle and surrounding communities – or the Eagle River Fire District, which works primarily east of Wolcott. Both agencies have expressed interest in annexing the Bond/McCoy territory. The fledgling Bond/McCoy fire department, which organized five years ago, has been getting by with volunteers, community fund-raising , and some donated or used equipment. What they don’t have is a firehouse for storage of trucks and equipment, or a reliable source of funding. When the volunteers asked Eagle County for $50,000 last year to build a firehouse, the commissioners readily agreed but only on the condition the McCoy group affiliate with a fire district.”I’d like to see every piece of private property in the county under some form of fire protection,” says Eagle County Commissioner Michael Gallagher, a former firefighter. Gallagher says rural areas should either form a fire district, or join an existing one to secure of reliable source of revenue.”As it is now, they don’t have operations money, and they have no taxing authority. Bingo doesn’t pay the bills,” he says.Fundraising vs. firefighting
Gary Horn, president of the Bond/McCoy Fire Department, also sees a need for an affiliation with a larger organization, he says. The small, rural department operates with seven or eight steady volunteers, most of whom work day jobs outside of the area, he says. “It is hard to guarantee 24-and-seven coverage,” he says.Money is also an issue. The little district has been able to snag some donations and grants, and community volunteers work at raising money, with community events, and by volunteering hours at the Eagle Valley Community Rummage Sale, Horn says.”After five, 10 years of everybody trying to raise money and play politician, they just get burned out,” Horn notes.The rural fire department has been asking around about joining a fire district. They inquired at Yampa, Gypsum, Greater Eagle and Eagle River. The latter two showed the greatest interest.Somehow – blame miscommunication, and a heavy dose of local politics – both fire districts have ended up initiating the legal steps necessary to absorb the Bond-McCoy area into their districts. The inclusion would include a broad area of land north of I-70 and along Highway 131 to the Routt County line, and all the way down the Colorado River Road to the Gypsum Fire District’s boundary.The first step in the public hearing process is a hearing on the inclusion proposal. The next step is a review of the proposal by a District Court judge, then the setting of an election date. Ultimately, the majority of the property owners in the proposed district will decide whether they want to join a fire district.Both Greater Eagle and Eagle River are pursuing the inclusion. Greater Eagle held its public hearing on the inclusion on Dec. 8; Eagle River is a step behind, holding its hearing in McCoy on Dec. 14.
Response times and taxesOn Nov. 30, the directors of the Bond/McCoy Fire Department sent out a letter urging area property owners to support affiliation with the Greater Eagle district. “Our decisions for supporting the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District is based on the excellent emergency services they have provided us for approximately the past 30 years, and at this point, continue to provide. In addition, the outstanding working relationship our department has developed with them, and the continuing professional support they provide through training and resources (is another reason for the decision),” the letter said. That touched off some dissension. Kerry Braatz, who serves as secretary and treasurer of the McCoy Fire Department, sent out a letter on Dec. 2 declaring that he had voted against the inclusion with Greater Eagle. He argued that Eagle River has more to offer, citing the donation of a $100,000 pumper-truck and hundreds of dollars of additional equipment as well as the agency’s willingness to help with training and other needs.Landowner Merill Hastings of McCoy, the founding chairman of the Bond/McCoy Fire Department, followed that up with a three-page letter on Dec. 3 in support of the Eagle River Fire District affiliation. Hastings argues that the original letter sent out by the Bond/McCoy Fire Department directors is “entirely without merit.” He argues the Eagle River fire station in Edwards is eight minutes closer to the Bond/McCoy area, and has plans to build a new station even closer, in Wolcott. Hastings also notes that the Eagle River Fire District has a lower property tax rate, a more valuable property tax base, and a bigger organization.”The best choice is a no-brainer,” Hastings says.
Dueling processes”We’re up to our eyeballs in politics,” Horn says.Both of the larger fire districts have been helpful to McCoy as have firefighters from Grand County, Routt Count, and Yampa, Horn says. The fire chiefs of the Greater Eagle and Eagle River Fire Districts are cautious in their comments. At this point, Greater Eagle has a foot in the door, because state statutes allow for only one inclusion procedure at a time. Because they held their meeting a week earlier, Greater Eagle’s inclusion petition is already in the process.”We’ll let those people decide what they really want,” says Chief Jon Asper. Some 26 McCoy area property owners asked to be excluded from the district, which Greater Eagle agreed to.Eagle River Fire Chief Charlie Moore says his organization proceeded with a public hearing because citizens have expressed an interest. Eagle River will basically sit back and wait to see what happens when the Greater Eagle proposal goes to a ballot question, he says.”If the people go for Eagle, the process is over,” notes Moore.Both chiefs note that including the Bond/McCoy territory in their districts will not be a money-making proposition.”From a business standpoint, it will cost us more than we will collect in revenue. Our opinion at Eagle River is that we’ve been asked for help; and we will do what we can to help out,” Moore says. “The best way for the process to work is for people to speak at the voting booths.”