Routt County emergency management budget could be overhauled to provide fire mitigation funding
The Routt County Board of Commissioners signaled Monday it favored a plan that would overhaul the Office of Emergency Management’s budget and for the first time earmark money for fire mitigation efforts.
Under a new plan laid out by Emergency Operations Manager David “Mo” DeMorat, there would essentially be three categories of spending: capability building, such as emergency clothing and supplies; wildfire and other hazard mitigation; and emergency response.
Before now, the emergency management budget has been somewhat murky, with part of it falling within the county’s communications budget and part coming from a wildfire suppression budget that DeMorat said is always difficult to predict.
DeMorat said it also never made sense that he had budgeted emergency dollars for response to wildfires but never any other type of emergency.
“We’ve had responses to hazardous material tanker rollovers, there’s been some flooding, but yet, the only hazard we have budgeted is wildfires,” DeMorat said.
This year’s budget was $102,000, and on Monday, DeMorat outlined a 2022 budget that would only commit about $88,000 up front, though suppression costs could easily double that.
Wildfire suppression costs have varied wildly over the past few years. In 2017, Routt County paid nearly $400,000 in fire suppression, and last year, that figure was just $8,000.
This is because the county’s suppression costs depend on where a fire burns. If a fire is on federal land like the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest — where the Middle Fork, Muddy Slide and Morgan Creek fires all predominantly burned — the county isn’t on the hook for suppression costs.
“2020, I think, was an anomaly in that we did have a very large fire — Middle Fork to the tune of about $10 million — but we were fortunate that it all stayed on federal property, so there was no bill,” DeMorat said.
This year’s suppression costs to the county are about $85,000 so far, with a few months of fire season left. Still, DeMorat said the county was fortunate that the Morgan Creek Fire was entirely on federal property, and the Muddy Slide Fire was 96.5% on federal property.
Rather than budget for wildfire suppression expenses, DeMorat proposed he cover those costs using authority he has to spend as much as $100,000 in response to an emergency without commissioner approval. He has always had this authority, and this money could be spent on all emergencies, not just wildfires.
“That comes out to $188,000, which I know is a significant increase over the previous year’s budget, but we also had to provide supplemental budgets, which significantly surpassed even this budget,” he said.
The budget would also not require that the full $100,000 earmarked for emergency response be spent. In the past, unspent suppression money has gone toward more capability building, such as the purchase of a sprinkler system the county bought earlier this year. Under this plan, there is no benchmark for spending on response.
“This makes sense,” Commissioner Tim Corrigan said. “And we know, oftentimes, that won’t be enough money.”
Much of the capability-building budget includes fixed costs the Office of Emergency Management has always had, such as protective clothing, equipment and insurance, among other things. This part of the budget adds up to about $68,000, a little more than this year’s total for these items.
The main budget increase comes from $20,000 that would be split between mitigation projects from the Routt County Wildfire Mitigation Council and the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which was updated in 2018. DeMorat said any past mitigation effort has been funded through other departments and their budgets.
With projects identified, DeMorat said the county now is eligible for grant funding for mitigation, too. For example, he anticipates as much as $60,000 worth of mitigation projects in this budget, but the county only pays a quarter of that.
The hope is that spending more on mitigation now will lead to less spending on suppression in the future.
“Now that we know what the hazards are, and we have specified projects, now, we should start pursuing those projects to reduce our hazard and increase our resilience,” DeMorat said.
Commissioners did not vote on the budget but told DeMorat they were fine with his intention to restructure. More discussion will take place when the process to create the 2022 budget ramps up next week.
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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