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City not ready for another tax

Christine Metz

Some old ghosts haunted the Steamboat Springs City Council on Tuesday night as members grappled with the decision to consolidate fire and EMS services with the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District.

City Council members were unanimous in their support to continue to look at consolidating with the fire district. They also were unanimous in not wanting to go back to the voters with a property tax proposal so quickly after similar proposals were defeated in 2002 and 2003.

The council met with the rural fire district to discuss the possibility of forming a single district. Under state statute, a special district can be funded only through a property tax.

In 2002 and again in 2003, the city proposed a property tax that would have been dedicated solely to funding fire and EMS services. The property tax would have freed up money in the city’s general fund that was being spent on the fire department.

Councilwoman Susan Dellinger said it could be two to three years before the voters are ready for a property tax proposal again.

“We didn’t beat the horse. We killed that horse. We took it out back and buried it in the ground because of presentation and questions unanswered,” Dellinger said.

Much of the council’s discussion was focused on what went wrong in the previous campaigns and what could be done to convince voters to support a fire and EMS property tax.

If the council held out a carrot to the voters in exchange for a property tax, it might help, Steve Ivancie said. All council members agreed there needed to be more clarity about where the money freed up from the property tax would be spent, something that they thought was not sufficiently addressed in the past proposals and led to their defeats.

Councilwoman Kathy Connell said part of the problem also was the fear of the city handing over control of the fire and EMS services to a separately elected fire district.

Currently, the city and rural fire protection district have a joint agreement in which the city pays for roughly 70 percent of the operating costs and the district pays 30 percent. The district covers its costs through a property tax.

President of the rural fire protection district Bob Kuusinen said that because the two entities already had merged operations, the city would not lose much cost savings if it did not consolidate in the next year or two.

“The question is long-term funding,” Kuusinen said.

City Manager Paul Hughes said it was logical to use a property tax, which is more stable than sales tax revenue, for a service such as the fire department.

“Critical life safety services shouldn’t be dependent on how much snow falls or how many softball players are in town. The way to do that is to have property pay to defend property,” Hughes said.

If the city would decide to move forward with a property tax proposal, it would go against the recommendations made by the Tax Policy Advisory Board in its final report last week. The board decided that the city’s tax structure should not change and it should continue to rely mainly on sales tax as its revenue source.

— To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com


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