Oak Creek fire department asks for additional funding on May ballot
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Oak Creek Fire Protection District is bringing a ballot measure to residents that would raise property taxes to address concerns over understaffing.
The ballot question asks voters to approve a 4-mill increase in local property taxes, which would boost the fire department’s revenue by about $198,000 annually, according to Oak Creek Fire Chief Chuck Wisecup.
The mail-in election is scheduled for May 5.
This comes as the fire department grapples with revenue reductions and increased call volume. Between 2009 and 2017, the fire department saw a two-thirds cut in assessed property values, which translated to a loss of about $436,000 in property tax revenue, according to the language of the ballot initiative.
If approved by voters, revenue generated from the tax hike would allow the department to hire three additional, full-time personnel to help what Wisecup described as an overworked and underpaid crew.
The last time the fire department asked for and received a mill levy increase was in 2002, Wisecup said, back when call volumes were about half of current rates. His firefighters also respond to calls in neighboring municipalities when resources are limited. During the summer, Oak Creek often deals with wildfires that stretch resources even thinner.
To meet demand, firefighters work 96-hour shifts followed by 96 hours of time off, Wisecup said, which leaves them tired and often unable to take vacation time. The fire department currently employs five full-time firefighters and 12 paid, on-call personnel. There also is a pool of about 10 volunteer firefighters, but those numbers have been dropping over the years, Wisecup said.
The addition of three full-time firefighters would allow the fire department to keep two people on duty 24/7, according to Deputy Fire Chief Jay Kenealy. That would provide the department with the manpower to better respond to calls and reduce fatigue on the staff.
Kenealy said understaffing is a particular problem during wildfire season or when the department has to transport people to Steamboat Springs for medical attention. A trip to the UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center takes an average of 30 minutes, he said, which takes on-duty personnel away from the fire station.
“Sometimes, we are left uncovered because we don’t have enough staff,” Kenealy said.
More money would help hire more trained paramedics, he said, which are the highest level of pre-hospital care. Currently, Kenealy is the only paramedic on staff.
“With more paramedics, we can do a lot more advanced skills to help that patient during transport,” Kenealy said.
The funding increase also would help retain firefighters and allow the fire department to offer more competitive wages, Wisecup said. After searching for job openings in similar-sized departments, he noticed that starting wages for many firefighter and EMT positions are what he is paying his deputy fire chief.
“Retention has always been a problem,” said Steve Strickler, a former board president for the Oak Creek Fire Protection District.
This is not the first time the Oak Creek Fire District has had to find ways to address a drop in property tax revenue. In 2018, the fire protection district passed a measure that addressed a decrease in funding as a result of the state’s Gallagher Amendment.
West Routt Fire Protection District is proposing a similar measure to Oak Creek’s 2018 ballot measure on its May ballot.
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