Service calls increase but budget shrinks for Greater Eagle Fire Protection District
EAGLE — Statistics compiled by the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District reflect a number of upward trends.
For instance, three years ago, the average amount of time firefighters spent on a call was 42 minutes. In 2018, the average number has jumped to 166 minutes. Back in 2016, only 13.2 percent of the time were firefighters called out to multiple emergencies at the same time. This year, that happened 34.2 percent of the time.
Coming off one of the busiest wildfire seasons in recent years, just about every department statistic has seen significant growth. But one department measure has actually dropped — the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District’s annual budget.
Back in 2010, the district’s annual budget was $2.9 million. In 2018, the budget is $2.2 million. The reason why can be traced to Colorado’s complicated Gallagher Amendment.
Approved by Colorado voters in 1982, the Gallagher Amendment governs the way homes are appraised for property tax purposes. It mandates that the amount of property taxes collected on residential properties must be lower than the amount of property taxes collected on nonresidential property. Specifically, Gallagher stipulates that residential property taxes reflect 45 percent of the state’s total property tax revenue. Nonresidential property taxes comprise the other 55 percent.
But the law is a budget bane for small, property tax-dependent special districts in rural areas. Because the 45/55 split is a statewide calculation, right now it reflects the residential building boom that is happening along Colorado’s Front Range. Rural and mountain areas haven’t seen the residential growth that is spurring the assessment rate decline, and they often lack enough nonresidential base to offset the lower residential tax rate.
Back in 2017, the state’s residential properties were assessed at 7.96 percent. In 2018 and 2019, Gallagher dropped that rate to 7.2 percent. In 2020 and 2021, the residential assessment rate is expected to drop to 6.11 percent. The net effect for Eagle fire is an approximately $700,000 budget cut.
This fall, in ballot question 6A, residents of the fire district will be asked to halt future Gallagher assessment drops and restore funding to the level it was when the assessment rate was 7.96 percent.
The district has trimmed spending because of the assessment rate decline by deferring purchases of new equipment and pushing back construction of a second fire station in the Brush Creek Valley. Those actions have kept its firefighter corps at full strength.
“When you go from a $2.9 million budget to a $2.2 million budget, you are just trying to keep jobs,” Greater Eagle Fire Protection District Chief Doug Cupp said. “We have been able to keep our staffing, but we have had to hold the line on capital improvements.”
Cupp said the longer time on scene and the increased frequency of having more than one crew called out at the same time demonstrate why keeping the firefighter corps fully staffed is so vital. But the district actually has two fewer staff members today than it did four years ago as a result of attrition. Cupp said with the next scheduled Gallagher assessment rate drop, more personnel cuts are inevitable.
“With the next ratchet down with Gallagher, there is nothing left to cut except personnel,” Cupp said.
That’s the message that proponents of ballot question 6A are hammering.
“You can’t cut the number of firefighters and be safer,” said Cliff Thompson, of IKS Consulting.
Thompson noted that a reduced fire district budget coming at the same time when the valley is growing and wildfires are more prominent is an obvious safety concern.
“And with Gallagher, more residential growth is more impact, not more funding,” Thompson said.
He added that the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District just one of several entities feeling the same funding pressures. Fire protection districts in Gypsum, Summit County, Carbondale, Basalt and Grand County have their own Gallagher ballot questions planned this fall.
“Because there is no simple solution and no movement to address Gallagher at the state level, we all decided we would try to address this at the local level,” Cupp said. “This is an issue that hurts mountain and rural districts the most, and the list of entities going for an election this fall goes on and on.”
The proposed deal would be a three-way agreement between the town, the developer and the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.