Frequently asked questions from those opposed to current Steamboat fire district inclusion plan
Q. What is being proposed by the city of Steamboat Springs and the fire district?
A. The City Fire Department is currently a department of the city supported by sales taxes. The fire district is the area surrounding the city — like a donut with the city in the middle. The fire district employs no firefighters and provides no fire or EMS services directly. Fire and EMS service is provided to the fire district by the City Fire Department. The fire district imposes a property tax and pays the city for this service. The plan is for the city to transfer the fire department — trucks and vehicles, personnel and the mountain fire station — to the fire district and for the city to stop being in the fire protection business. To do this, all property in the city would be “included” in the fire district and the fire district would impose up to a 9-mill property tax levy on all property within the city. This plan requires approval by city voters. Many residential and commercial property owners have asked the city and fire district to cancel the May election and go back to the drawing board to develop a fairer, less expensive consensus plan that can be widely supported in the community.
Q. What would be the impact of a 9-mill property tax in the city?
A. Nine mills is a very large property tax. It would generate $6 million annually within the city and be the largest tax increase in the history of Routt County. The annual property tax bill for every property owner in the city — commercial and residential — will increase at least 18 percent.
Property market value and annual additional property tax: $500,000 home, $324; $750,000 home, $486; $1,000,000 home, $648; $1,000,000 commercial property, $2,610; and $2,000,000 commercial property, $5,220.
These increases would make it more difficult for home buyers to qualify for a mortgage and put upward pressure on rents. For commercial properties, the tax increases would be more than four times residential properties of equal value and will be passed through to businesses and their tenants by commercial property owners. This will increase the already high cost of living in Steamboat Springs and make it harder for our businesses to compete with the likes of Costco and Amazon.
Q. Why are we so concerned about the takeover of fire/EMS by the fire district?
A. The fire district is a special district governed by a five-member board. Four of the current board members earned their seats in uncontested elections and the fifth seat is currently vacant. As is frequently the case in special district elections, elections are routinely canceled and the incumbents or their appointed replacements are elected. Board meetings are rarely attended by the public, and their proceedings are almost never reported in the media. This is totally different than the City Council, which is much more accountable to the public and whose actions are highly visible and regularly reported in the Steamboat Pilot and Today. The up to 9-mill property tax revenue will be a dedicated source of revenue available only for fire and ambulance services and no other purpose. The community will lose the ability to balance the needs of fire and ambulance against other community priorities, such as roads, water and sewer, parks or police protection. The decision would be very difficult to reverse.
Q. What’s wrong with the process used to develop the current plan?
A. The specifics of the current plan were first discussed by the City Council at a meeting in May. The plan was approved in September after a handful of council meetings totaling four or five hours of discussion. Notably, there was no public comment on the plan prior to approval, and there was very little newspaper coverage of the proceedings leading up to approval of the plan. No serious effort was made to engage commercial property owners who would pay a big percentage of the proposed new taxes under the plan.
Q. What’s the beef? The plan can be debated over the next six months leading up to the election in May.
A. This argument misses the point. Once the decision is made to proceed with the inclusion plan, there remains only the question of whether to include the city within the fire district or not. If voters approve the measure, the city becomes part of the fire district, taxes could go up $6 million a year and the fire department’s FTE employment increases from 28 to 51 by 2024. No other options are on the table. If voters decide against the measure, the city and fire district are back to square one. This will be a vigorously contested election. It should be expected that both sides will go to their corners and come out fighting. This plan raises significant issues that should be thoroughly considered in a broad community dialogue before being placed on the ballot. That is the history of successful tax proposals in this community. Dispensing with that step risks a divisive process and defeat at the polls. It would be better for the city and fire district to cancel the May election and put together a citizens committee to examine the problem of long-term financing of fire and emergency services and develop a plan that could find consensus within the community. If this inclusion plan is defeated after a polarizing election, it is unlikely that those who have spent time, money and effort on the opposition side will enthusiastically embrace developing a consensus plan with those who forced the election on them. The city should give objecting property owners five or six months to work with other stakeholders to come up with a consensus plan. If they don’t act in good faith, the current plan can always be put back on the ballot in November.
This FAQ was prepared by attorney Robert Weiss, who is representing a group of commercial property owners, in response to frequently asked questions submitted by Chris Welch in his role as vice president of the Steamboat Springs Professional Firefighters, a fire services employee union.
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