Steamboat council moves forward with property tax to fund emergency services
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As Steamboat Springs City Council members deliberated Tuesday over how to increase funding and personnel for the local fire department, they fumbled over an issue that has stagnated similar efforts for the past five years: convincing the public to get on board.
By the end of the night, the council voted to move forward with a 2-mill property tax to fund fire and emergency services, as well as a new fire station, which, if approved on second reading, would be placed on the November ballot. Council members acknowledged this would not garner enough revenue to achieve all the goals set forth by Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue, but they feared voters would not approve a larger tax.
It would be Steamboat’s first property tax in more than 40 years, and some residents believe the city needs to be more conservative with how it spends money, not ask for more.
In April, an ad hoc budget committee, composed of community members as well as city officials, devised funding options that would generate $8 million over the next six years. That is the amount of money the committee said would fulfill Steamboat Fire Rescue’s 2019 strategic plan, which calls for adding 20 full-time personnel to the agency by 2025.
The 2-mill property tax would only bring in about $6.8 million by that time, according to a report from Kim Weber, the city’s finance director. That shortfall of $1.2 million does not take into account the money needed for the new fire station.
In the short term, however, the funding would allow Steamboat Fire Rescue to hire the personnel it says it needs to meet an increase in calls for service.
As council member Lisel Petis argued, the 2-mill tax represents progress after years of inaction and is the most likely option to gain voter approval.
“This is something that needs to be passed this year,” she said. “It’s something that we wanted done last year.”
The tax would generate about $1.5 million in 2020, which would allow Steamboat Fire Rescue to hire four new staff members, including three firefighters and a deputy fire marshal, according to Fire Chief Mel Stewart. But by 2022, his agency’s expenses would outpace revenue.
Many council members hoped by that time, they would be able to either find additional funding sources or get voters to approve a tax hike.
During public comment, Joe Oakland, a member of Steamboat Fire Rescue, said a short-term fix was not enough when it comes to the public’s safety.
“A 2-mill tax will leave the community significantly underserved with fire and EMS services in as little as two years,” he said.
What: Public hearing on Steamboat City Council’s proposed property tax for emergency services
When: 5 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 27
Where: Citizens’ Meeting Room in Centennial Hall, 124 10th St.
As past Steamboat Pilot & Today articles explained, a spike in calls for emergency services has outpaced increases in fire and medical personnel and made it difficult for them to respond to multiple calls at once.
Five years ago, Steamboat Fire Rescue devised a similar strategic plan to its 2019 version, according to Oakland, requesting additional funds for new staff, but the council pushed back the agency’s goals due to a lack of funding sources.
He worried that by providing a temporary fix, rather than finding a more sustainable solution, the public may turn a cold shoulder to future funding initiatives.
Aug. 30, 2018: Steamboat fire district seeks ballot measure to include city in district boundaries
Oct. 11, 2018: Steamboat fire district seeks feedback on measure that would fund city emergency services with property tax
Oct. 17, 2018: Steamboat council, fire district board push pause button on inclusion election
Nov. 8, 2018: City, fire district to discuss proposed property tax that would fund Steamboat emergency services
Nov. 13, 2018: Routt County commissioners vote against excluding Steamboat properties from new fire district boundary
Nov. 14, 2018: Steamboat fire district inclusion election will not be held in May
Dec. 5, 2018: Steamboat to form citizens committee to address fire funding options
Jan. 24, 2019: Steamboat names committee members to seek new funding options for fire, emergency services
Feb. 14, 2019: Three downtown sites to be considered for new Steamboat Fire Rescue station
April 11, 2019: Committee proposes property tax on city to fund emergency services, new Steamboat fire station
“Going back to the voters will be met with thoughts of, ‘We fixed that already,’” he said.
Adonna Allen, a Steamboat Fire Protection District board member, agreed that the 2-mill tax seemed more like a Band-Aid that left too many uncertainties looming.
On the other side of the issue is Steamboat resident Bill Jameson, who argued against any increase in taxes during public comment. He believes the city has enough money in its budget to fund core services, including fire protection and EMS.
“The question is, what non-core services are you going to fund?” he said.
Council members, including Scott Ford, alluded to the possibility of diverting money from other areas to meet Steamboat Fire Rescue’s needs. Jameson proposed taking money from the community support budget, though that appeared unpopular among the council.
“For 10 years, there has never been real discussion of our core services and how you are going to fund them,” Jameson said. “Before you bring this vote to the people, you better have that discussion or it’s going to be a hard sell, even for 2 mills.”
Under a 2-mill property tax, homeowners would pay an annual tax of about $15 per $100,000 of actual valuation. Commercial property owners would pay $58 per $100,000 of actual valuation under the proposed property tax.
The council will hold a public hearing on the proposed tax at 5 p.m. Aug. 27 during its regular meeting.
Council member Robin Crossan took a moment Tuesday night to urge the public to attend.
“We have a solid month to hear from our community, and we need to hear from you,” she said.
To view the City Council’s discussion on this topic, visit steamboatsprings.net/agendas.
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