Routt County commissioners vote against excluding Steamboat properties from new fire district boundary
November 13, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Routt County Board of Commissioners narrowly rejected two measures that could have postponed the proposed May election in which voters would determine if the city of Steamboat Springs will be included in the surrounding fire district.
The election would allow voters in the district and the city to decide to include the city in the fire district, which would place the district’s tax on city residents. Currently, this rate is 6.259 mills, but the measure would allow the tax to go up to 9 mills.
At 9 mills, residential property owners would pay $64.80 per $100,000 of assessed property value. Several commercial property owners also have expressed concern about the property tax rate, which would be significantly higher for commercial property owners due to the Gallagher Amendment.
If approved, the inclusion would also free up about $1.86 million of the city’s current budget for emergency services.
The Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District Board referred two decisions to the county commissioners.
The first was whether or not to allow about 450 properties in city limits to be excluded from the district. The second was a determination of whether including the city would be considered a material modification of the fire district's service plan.
Many property owners petitioned that their properties be excluded from the new district boundary in protest of the process.
Steamboat Fire Rescue Fire Chief Mel Stewart explained that a reasonable rationale to exclude a property from the district, and its property tax, would be in the case where a property could not be accessed by firefighters in an emergency. He told the commissioners he was not aware of any properties Steamboat Fire Rescue would not be able to access in the city.
Some of the petitions are for individual units in a condominium building, which would complicate firefighters’ response to a fire should that unit burn, Stewart said.
Bob Weiss, an attorney representing many of the property owners who petitioned for exclusion, spoke on behalf of the petitioners. He agreed that it doesn't make sense to allow a patchwork of properties to be excluded from the district.
"Our request to you is to exclude the entire city from this process, not just the petitioners, the entire city," he told commissioners at their Tuesday meeting.
Weiss has been an outspoken opponent of the process leading up to the May election. He believes it has not been transparent enough, stating no member of the public commented on the pre-inclusion agreement between the city and the district.
He's also concerned that shifting administration of emergency services from the city to the district will result in less oversight. Current district board members landed in their positions in uncontested elections.
Proponents of the May election argue that with a bigger budget and more responsibility, the district board will be under more scrutiny and see more public involvement.
The commissioners voted 2-1 to not allow the exclusions and also voted that the inclusion of the city in the district would not be considered a material modification of the district's service plan. If either of these items had seen a different outcome, it would have delayed the fire district election in May, according to County Attorney Eric Knaus.
Commissioner Cari Hermacinski was the lone vote in favor of excluding the city and requiring an amendment to the district's service plan. She said the election would force some county residents to vote “yes” or “no” on the plan without other options considered.
"All it's doing is giving some of our county citizens this binary choice of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ of this one plan, which I believe hasn't had a lot of public discussions, so it would be my inclination to say support the petitions for exclusion, and I'd even say let's apply that to every property in the city," she said.
Commissioner Tim Corrigan agreed that the proposed fire district election has had its problems.
"This has been a flawed process," he said. "If I lived in the district, I would almost certainly vote against this, based on the amount of the tax increase, based upon the process up to this point, but that's not what we're being asked to provide a judgment on today."
Commissioner Doug Monger said he was troubled by the up to 9 mill rate, the switch of administration from the city to the district and a process he sees as as bypassing a Taxpayers Bill of Rights election.
There are vocal proponents and opponents to the May election.
In Monday's joint meeting between the fire district board and Steamboat Springs City Council, about two-thirds of those in attendance were in favor of the May election when Council President Jason Lacy polled the audience. The last time the measure was discussed at City Council on Oct. 16, those speaking during public comment were equally divided in opinion.
"I think if the objective is to get a solution, save lives, be able to respond to those third and fourth calls is not to force a very, very divisive election — and this is rare in Steamboat,” Weiss said in public at Monday’s meeting. “I can only think of a few times this has occurred — that's going to have a well-financed, organized opposition. I think if that happens, the chances of passing this are reduced by anyone's measure and then you're kind of back to square one."
Joe Oakland, president of the Steamboat Springs Professional Firefighters Union, spoke immediately after Weiss.
"Yeah, if it goes to an election, there's going to be a pro side and a con side because that's how elections work. There are two sides to them," Oakland said. "Yeah, they're going to be organized, and they're going to be out there, and there's also going to be a good organization of people who are interested in this going forward. That's why we have elections. That's why we do it."
Weiss expressed concern that too few options have been considered. He proposed two others before being timed out in public comment: keeping Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue under City Council's oversight by putting a city property tax before voters or using the city's funding offset to reduce the rate taxpayers would pay.
Oakland agreed that there were a lot of options.
"Those options have been looked at by you guys in committees, and you've talked about those options," he told City Council. "This is the one you settled on."
The fire district inclusion election and the $1.86 million in offset in the city budget it would create if approved by voters were also up for discussion at Tuesday's City Council meeting.