Steamboat council, fire district board push pause button on inclusion election
October 17, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — You might have mistaken the Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District board meeting for a performance event in Steamboat Springs City Council Chambers on Monday night.
The room was packed — every seat would've been filled, but many people elected to line the hallway and stand in the back of the room. Board members received nearly an hour’s worth of impassioned public comment, and audience members clapped after each person spoke. Both those speaking in favor of and in opposition to the fire district's May 2019 ballot measure received applause.
From the public
"I am very much in favor of the fire protection district. It scares me to think that the fire department and EMS budgets are tinkered with every year because you're balancing other needs against it. I would like to see them have a dedicated funding source." — Lynn Zinn during the Tuesday City Council meeting
"Let’s say the city has $500,000 worth of extra money. What do they do with it? They'd sit down and say we're going to spend it on this or that or that — about 10 different things, and based on the needs of the city at the time, they'll make the right decision. If you give $500,000 extra to the fire department, what are they going to do with it? Buy another fire truck. Give everybody a raise. That's not in the best interest of the city." —Ty Lockhart during the City Council meeting
"I would urge you to not pass off responsibility for one of the core services. I think you need to take a step back. I think we need to keep it under the umbrella of the city. I think you also need to trust the constituents. We have a very, very aware community, and when things are needed in this community, they step up and vote for a tax." — Loui Antonucci during City Council meeting
"I don't think anybody is here to dispute that there's more funding needed or a more sustainable funding source, but it does feel rushed and to use Ty (Lockhart)'s words, it does feel a little stinky." — Rob Perlman during fire district board meeting
"Our current budget is available on our website. It's not intended — nothing is intended — to be secretive about this process. We also are elected, but like it came up last night, we ran unopposed. We have a vacancy on our board because nobody wants to serve. … Nobody is trying to pull over anybody's eyes, but this is just how it is. I suspect, if we go forward this, we're going to have people willing to serve on the board." — Tom Ihrig, fire district board member during City Council meeting
"It was a series of links in a chain that weren't random. My accident was random — but these were very definite systems in place, and they worked. I'm here, and I am not paralyzed. But there is one link in the chain right now — and probably the most important one —is this immediate response, and it's getting overwhelmed." — Jeff Troeger, during fire district board meeting on the role Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue played in saving his life after he broke his neck in a mountain bike accident
The following night, the Steamboat Springs City Council also received nearly an hour of public comment.
The contention was inspired by a planned May election, in which voters in the fire district and the city will determine whether to include the city in the district.
The fire district and the city currently collaborate to fund fire and emergency services in the city. The district funds about one-third of the expenses of emergency services through a property tax, and the city pays about two-thirds of the cost through the city budget largely funded by sales taxes.
The inclusion measure, if approved, would levy the same property tax the fire district pays in the city. Currently, that rate is 6.259 mills, but it is allowed to go up to 9 mills. The rate of taxation would increase as the district funds half of a new fire station in central Steamboat and adds additional staff, Steamboat Fire Rescue Chief Mel Stewart has said.
Between the two meetings, officials heard more than 40 comments on the measure. People expressed a broad range of opinions, but even among those who opposed the measure, most expressed fundamental support for Steamboat Fire Rescue's first responders.
Many commercial property owners expressed concern that due to the Gallagher Amendment they would be disproportionately taxed. Several commenters preferred to see revenue generated from a sales tax instead.
On Monday night, the district board tabled several resolutions regarding the inclusion election. One of those would have made a determination on properties that applied for exclusion from the district. The board referred the more than 200 exclusion petitions it received to the Routt County Board of County Commissioners, who will consider them on Tuesday, Nov. 13.
While they wait for the commissioners' determination on the exclusion petitions, fire district board members tabled two resolutions — one that would adopt a resolution to include the city in the district, and another that would've approved a board order to include the city.
The board also decided to extend the public hearing on the inclusion election to its Thursday, Nov. 19 meeting.
"We want to assure the community — this is not the end of the process," said Dino Ross, the fire district's attorney. "This is the beginning of the process if it moves forward. The end of the process is always going to be an election of the citizens within the city to determine whether they think this is a good idea. This is really kind of moving through the first phases of that to queue it up for an election."
The City Council also paused its decision making.
Council planned to determine where the city would allocate $1.8 million that the city would save annually by not contributing to the fire district's budget should voters approve the inclusion measure. Their conversation quickly turned to whether the fire district inclusion election should happen next May.
"I think it's a mistake to just say 'put it on the ballot and let people vote,'" Steamboat City Council President Pro-Tem Kathi Meyer said. "Well, if we really think, we have not engaged the community. We had discussions between the district and the city, and the third partner — and the most important partner — is the community who will be affected and will have to vote for it."
Meyer supported delaying the election until November to explore other ideas.
City Council now plans to host a joint town hall with the fire district during the week of Oct. 29 to gather more input from the public. The council will also develop an informational sheet to explain elements of the inclusion process.
The council tabled any decisions regarding the pre-inclusion agreement between the city and the fire district. Council members also postponed discussion on the funding offset the inclusion would create if approved until after the town hall.
Council will discuss those items at its Tuesday, Nov. 13 meeting.
"I've heard enough tonight — I heard a lot last night — that made me say let's hold it out to November," said council member Robin Crossan on Tuesday. "But after listening to comments tonight, and although the same people said basically the same thing, I really do believe let's go in May and let's figure this out. It's either going to go or it's not, but I think in this next month we have a tremendous amount of work to do."
Crossan added that "everybody has to sharpen their pencil" to come up with a solution that could be a compromise between what the district is asking and what people have expressed concern over.
"We're all smart enough, and our community is smart enough, that if we give the appropriate and correct information, that we should be able to move forward," she said. "Let’s let our community decide."