City, fire district to discuss proposed property tax that would fund Steamboat emergency services | SteamboatToday.com

City, fire district to discuss proposed property tax that would fund Steamboat emergency services

Emergency vehicles pull out of the Steamboat Springs Mountain Fire Station. (File photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Steamboat Springs City Council and the Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District board will host a joint work session at 5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12 in Centennial Hall to discuss the proposed May election to include the city within the fire district.

Under the proposed measure, city and district voters would decide if the fire district should expand to include the city, which would levy the district property tax on city residents.

Up for discussion is the planned fire district inclusion election in May and how the city would budget the $1.86 million funding offset the proposal would create.

If you go

What: Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District board and Steamboat Springs City Council joint work session
When: 5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12
Where: Centennial Hall, 124 10th St.

What: Steamboat Springs City Council meeting
When: 5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13
Where: Centennial Hall, 124 10th St.

What: Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District Board meeting
When: 5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 19
Where: Centennial Hall, 124 10th St.

If you can’t attend the joint work session or city council meeting, you can watch a live video stream of the meeting by visiting the city's website at steamboatsprings.net.

"This is the first time that we will really have an opportunity for a work session with the council," said Karl Gills, assistant secretary of the Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District board. "It’ll be a little bigger group than the working group that we’ve worked with in the past. It gives us the opportunity to get more input from a broader number of people from both the council and from the district."

The proposal has been the focus of contentious meetings for both the fire district board and City Council. There is both vocal support for the measure and vocal opposition to it.

Community members have voiced an array of concerns with the proposal — that the public boards weren't acting transparently, that it should be funded by a different mechanism, that it should be voted on in November and that the city should continue to have oversight of Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue's budget.

Council member Lisel Petis said she hopes the meeting will be educational for people who might not understand what's going on.

"What we’ve noticed is that a lot of people have assumptions about things or have heard things that aren’t true or don’t think that we’re being transparent enough, so we just want to make sure everybody has all the facts," she said. "Whether they want to agree with us or not, in the end, is a different discussion, but we want to make sure everybody has the same facts."

Gills said the meeting will provide an opportunity for the fire district board and City Council to understand each other's opinions on the public comments expressed in public meetings in October. He said they would be able to incorporate their thoughts into the discussion as both entities determine in what direction they want to take the proposal.

"We want to hear from the community," Petis said. "We want to know — does the community agree with the ideas that we’re coming up with? Do they think this is a good direction? Do they think this is the right thing? Because, just as much as the community needs to hear from us on what the idea is, we need to hear from the community on whether or not it’s a good idea."

Proposed fire funding

Currently, the fire district surrounds the city but does not include the city of Steamboat. Through an intergovernmental agreement, Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue provides emergency services in the city.

During the past nine years, Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue has seen a 24 percent increase in the number of emergencies the agency responds to, but during the same time period, the number of firefighters and emergency medical personnel on staff has remained the same.

More importantly, Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue has seen a 64 percent increase in concurrent calls during the last nine years, which is when the agency was called to multiple emergencies at once. When emergency personnel respond to more than one call, fewer and fewer staff are available as more calls come in, forcing firefighters to respond to emergencies with half or a third of a full crew.

Steamboat Fire Chief Mel Stewart has expressed concern that the department's inability to respond with adequate staff to these concurrent calls will eventually lead to a death.

To remedy this, the fire district has proposed an election to include the city within the district.

If approved, the city would cease to contribute funding to the district, and Steamboat residents would pay the same property tax levied in the district.

The city contributes about two-thirds of the cost of providing emergency services in the city and the district from its own budget, largely derived from city sales tax. The remaining third is paid for by using revenue from property taxes paid by property owners in the district. If approved, the city would cease to contribute funding to the district, freeing up the $1.86 million it currently pays for emergency services.

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Steamboat residents would pay the same property tax levied in the district, which is currently 6.259 mills, but Stewart has said this amount would likely increase when the district builds a new fire station centrally located in Steamboat and adds additional staff. The amount could go up to 9 mills.

At 9 mills, residential property owners would pay $64.80 per $100,000 of actual property value, according to a fact sheet included in the meeting documents.

Steamboat residents currently pay about 45 mills in property taxes to the county and various special districts, city finance director Kim Weber said, though property tax rates vary across the city depending on the special districts in which a resident lives.

"This is my personal opinion. I’m obviously not speaking on behalf of the board. But I still think it is the right direction to go to ensure the stable funding stream that the fire service needs to continue to grow and meet the demands of the growing community," Gills said.

City Council will also discuss the proposal at its Tuesday meeting. The fire district board will also continue a public hearing on the measure at its meeting Monday, Nov. 19.

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email ehasenbeck@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.

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