Council FYI: Providing emergency services
July 30, 2018
The delivery of fire protection/emergency medical services is one of the city of Steamboat Springs’ highest priority. This essential service has some funding challenges that, if not successfully addressed, will have serious long-term budget consequences. To fully understand this challenge, it is best to start with what exists today from an organizational structure, how emergency services are funded and who is responsible for that funding.
The population within the city limits of Steamboat Springs is served by the Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue personnel and equipment. Before 2002, Steamboat Fire Rescue was staffed by volunteers. In 2001, the decision was made to staff the department with professionals. No provision was made on how to fund this momentous change. This effort has been chiefly funded through the city's general fund using sales tax collections. Currently, the department consists of 28 full-time and five part-time employees. The total 2018 budget for this department is slightly higher than $4 million.
The area surrounding Steamboat, including the subdivisions of Steamboat II, Heritage Park, Silver Spur, Tree Haus, Dakota Ridge, Country Green and Milner (an area of 428 square miles), are served by the Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District using the exact same personnel and equipment as that of Steamboat Fire Rescue. In 2018, the Protection District will pay the city about $1 million for fire protection and emergency medical services. The source of these funds is a 6.259 mill property tax paid by property owners within the district boundaries and outside of the city limits of Steamboat.
An intergovernmental agreement outlining funding responsibilities between the Area Protection District and the city has been working well. However, it may not work into the future as demands for services associated with a growing population within and outside of the city increase. When annualized throughout the past five years, the calls for emergency services have been increasing at a rate of 3 percent annually. Perhaps more importantly, the volume of concurrent calls is increasing at the rate of 5 percent annually.
The National Fire Protection Association has established standards for staffing and response times. Those standards are not currently being met and are at risk of declining further. As the 2019 budget discussions approach, Steamboat Springs City Council will likely be asked to increase staffing to meet NFPA standards. This would require an increase of about $1 million. About $125,000 of this increase would come from Area Protection District and the balance of $875,000 from the city's general fund budget.
The 2018 general fund budget was developed assuming a 3 percent increase in sales tax collections over the prior year. Based on current positive sales tax collections, the city's finance department is now projecting a 5 percent increase. This increase will mean an additional $675,000 of general fund revenue will be available. Although good news, this increase will not be enough to fund emergency services to NFPA standards.
In 2018, Steamboat Fire Rescue share of the general fund budget was 6.4 percent. With the increased expenses associated with meeting NFPA standards, increases in pay associated with attainment of additional skills by personnel and cost of living adjustments, Steamboat Fire Rescue's share of the 2019 general fund budget will be in the 8.0 to 8.5 percent range. This is the near-term budget challenge.
Currently, most of the calls for service are met by the staffing/equipment located at the Mountain Fire Station. There are plans to build, equip and staff a fire station near downtown. Currently $12 million is being identified in the Six-Year Capital Improvement Plan for 2020/2021 to construct this station and provide the equipment to make the station functional.
The long-term budget challenge facing City Council will be the expenses associated with operating and staffing this new station. Sales tax collections will likely continue to increase modestly. Assuming an annual increase in sales tax collections of 3 percent beginning in 2019 going forward, the operational/staffing share of the budget for Steamboat Fire Rescue will grow from the current 6.4 percent to about 16 to 18 percent of the general fund by 2023. Increases in sales tax collections alone will not resolve this problem.
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City Council can address this challenge without any new funding sources. However, this cannot be done without some significant budgetary pain. The city will need to do less and/or stop doing some nonessential services that are highly valued by the community. The only question will be whose ox gets gored?
Council is currently exploring some strategies to address this budget challenge. One option would be to ask the city voters to include the properties within the city limits into the existing Area Protection District and adopt its mill levy, which can be increased to a maximum of nine mills. This inclusion would mean that emergency services would be provided by Area Protection District rather than by the city going forward and would provide a long-term stable funding source for the service area.
Scott Ford is a member of Steamboat Springs City Council.