Committee proposes property tax on city to fund emergency services, new Steamboat fire station
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — After months of intense debate leading to stalemates, Steamboat Springs City Council received direction on an increasingly urgent need to expand emergency services and construct a new fire station.
Two committees presented during City Council’s work session Tuesday.
An ad hoc budget committee, composed of community members as well as city officials, devised two scenarios that would garner the $8 million intended to fund a new fire station and an expanded staff for Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue.
Both budget options recommend keeping the fire district separate from the city and levying new property taxes on Steamboat Springs residents and businesses.
The second committee, headed by Steamboat Deputy Fire Chief Chuck Cerasoli, offered details on the feasibility of building a new fire station at three locations across town as well as the pros and cons of each site.
Need for a new budget
In the past nine years, an increase in emergency calls has pushed Steamboat Fire Rescue to its limits. Steamboat Fire Chief Mel Stewart has expressed concern in previous meetings that a lack of personnel eventually could lead to a death.
In an attempt to remedy the issue, City Council tried in the fall to write a ballot measure to include the city in the district, but those efforts broke down in November.
To devise a solution that better represents the community’s interests, council members formed a committee composed of residents, business owners and city officials to recommend new budget options.
Both of the committee’s proposed budget scenarios would keep an intergovernmental agreement in which the fire district and city collaborate to fund emergency services.
Under that agreement, the fire district funds about one-quarter of the expenses of emergency services through a property tax, according to city Finance Director Kim Weber. The city pays the remaining three-quarters of the cost, largely through sales taxes.
Both budget scenarios would keep the city sales tax at its existing rate but propose adding a new property tax to Steamboat residents and businesses.
One scenario would levy a 2 mill property tax in addition to a tax on retail marijuana as well as alcohol sales from liquor stores and restaurants. Two mills would amount to $14.40 for every $100,000 in assessed value on residential property.
The second option included levying a 4 mill property tax, which would avoid taxes on marijuana and alcohol. That would equal $28.80 in residential property taxes for every $100,000 in assessed value.
Levying any sort of property tax is especially unpopular among commercial property owners who fear they would face proportionally higher property taxes than residents due to the Gallagher Amendment. Businesses therefore favored the first option because it offers the lower tax rate.
Kathy Connell, the chair of the budget committee and a local real estate agent, acknowledged that concern but said such disagreements were unavoidable.
“Whatever we do, we’re going to have a fight on the Gallagher,” she said.
Connell worried the first option added too many tax items, which would make it a difficult budget for voters to approve on a ballot measure.
“The more new things, the less likely the public will support it,” she said.
On the other side of the fence was committee member Bud Romberg, a retired school teacher. He advocated a tax on marijuana and alcohol was fair, arguing people who indulge in such substances disproportionately require emergency services.
“Although there are no hard facts, anecdotal evidence says there is a nexus between alcohol use and EMS calls,” he said.
City Council members applauded the budget committee’s work and recommendations but said council needed to evaluate the needs of emergency services before finalizing a budget.
City Manager Gary Suiter, who also sat on the committee, voiced the concerns of fellow members who argued the full $8 million does not need to be raised at once. Taking a more piecemeal approach could lessen the blow of any new taxes, he said.
Debate over the timeline of future expansion raised more questions than answers.
“I feel it incumbent on us to answer those questions and come back with more details to City Council and the public,” Suiter said.
Much of the budgetary confusion surrounds the proposed construction of a new fire station, which does not have a finalized site.
Search for a new fire station site
Council members directed the central fire station exploratory committee to look at the feasibility of constructing a station at one of three downtown locations, including:
- A lot at 13th Street and Lincoln Avenue across from Bud Werner Memorial Library
- The current location of city offices plus a parking lot at 10th Street and Lincoln Avenue
- The current fire station at 840 Yampa St.
Eric Becker — of OZ Architecture, which serves as a consulting firm on the project — presented his evaluations of the sites and alerted council members to some key concerns.
According to Becker, the lot across from the library has problems with storm water drainage, which makes the land unstable.
“In my opinion, that’s a huge red flag of a concern,” he said.
An analysis on the hydrology and geology of the site could quell that worry, but he projected such tests could cost at least $10,000.
Becker favored building on the current location of city offices at 10th Street and Lincoln Avenue, but the parking lot there also posed potential issues.
As Chief Cerasoli explained, a gas station used to be on the lot, which likely contaminated the soils with gasoline. If that is the case, he estimated the required cleanup to be about $1.1 million.
City Council members did not seem impressed by their options.
“We’re looking at two sites that both are awful,” council member Lisel Petis said.
Other members agreed but concluded a soils test would cost a fraction of the $10,000 site-analysis bill at the 13th Street and Lincoln Avenue location.
Council eventually decided to test the soils at the favored 10th Street and Lincoln Avenue site before deciding on a location.
Such a decision was not ideal for those who have waited months for more tangible action, but council member Scott Ford urged his fellow councilors to be patient with the process.
“This is part of the sausage making that goes with this,” he said. “If we stay diligent, we can get this done.”
“Yeah,” Council President Jason Lacy said, smiling and shaking his head, “in 2040.”
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