Steamboat fire district seeks feedback on measure that would fund city emergency services with property tax
October 11, 2018
Editor’s note: This story has been updated.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District plans to ask voters in May to include the city in the district's boundary, which would place a property tax of up to 9 mills on Steamboat Springs residents.
The fire district currently surrounds, but does not include, the city. The city provides fire and emergency services to the city through an intergovernmental agreement. About one-third of services are paid for by a property tax levied within the district, and about two-thirds are paid for through the city's budget, largely from sales tax revenue.
If approved by voters, the measure would include the city in the fire district and tax city property owners at the same rate those in the district pay. The district is allowed to tax up to 9 mills, but this rate is adjusted based on Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue's budget needs, district Fire Chief Mel Stewart said. Right now, the district pays a 6.259 mill property tax.
If you go
What: Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District public hearing
When: 5 p.m. Monday, Oct. 15
Where: Centennial Hall, 124 10th St.
More info: The Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District board will share information, answer questions and take public comment on the proposed inclusion election.
What: Steamboat Springs City Council meeting
When: 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16
Where: Centennial Hall, 124 10th St.
More info: Discussion about the fire district election and where the city's funding offset from the inclusion will be allocated is scheduled to take place about an hour into the meeting.
The fire district board will discuss the measure and take public comment at a hearing at 5 p.m. Monday, Oct. 15, in Centennial Hall.
Steamboat residents currently pay about 45 mills in property taxes to the county, cemetery district, school district and Colorado Mountain College District, city Finance Director Kim Weber said, though property tax rates vary across the city depending on the special districts in which a resident lives.
The measure would add $4.08 million in revenue to the fire district's budget at the current rate of 6.259 mills or $5.9 million at the maximum rate of 9 mills. Currently, the fire district has a budget of about $4.5 million. Stewart said the agency needs about $12 million to build a new station and add staff to meet the growing demand for services.
Stewart said the current fire district mill rate would increase as the district works to pay for the construction of a new fire station in central Steamboat. The cost of the station will be split evenly between the district and the city.
Including the city in the district would free up an estimated $1.8 million in city funds that currently are earmarked for fire district emergency services.
On Tuesday, Oct. 16, the Steamboat Springs City Council will finalize discussions of where the city would allocate that money, but preliminary ideas include saving for the city's contribution to a new fire station, a sales tax rebate, transit, police services or funding improvements at Howelsen Hill.
Council also will consider amending its pre-inclusion agreement with the district to move the vote to November 2019.
Criticisms of proposal
Ten Steamboat residents spoke against the ballot measure in its current form during public comment at the Tuesday, Oct. 9, City Council meeting. These critics called for the election to be postponed to November 2019. They said more voters would be aware of the fall election, and it would give the district time to gather public feedback and develop a proposal with community input in mind.
In addition, more than 200 property owners in the city have filed petitions to be excluded from the district — and its property tax — in protest to how the proposal has been approached. In a more typical situation, these petitions are intended to exclude from a fire district properties for which it would be difficult to actually provide services. Petitions include residential properties as well as businesses in the city.
Stewart said delaying the election would also delay funding expanded services, additional staff and a new fire station. If the measure is approved in May, the district would start to collect additional revenue in 2020. Pushing the election to November 2019 would push that starting collection date to January 2021.
Bob Weiss, a Steamboat attorney who represents several property owners in the area, is concerned that this tax increase is being proposed without enough public input.
"This is a huge change,” Bob Weiss said. "In my mind, this is the biggest policy — tax change — in the community in years, and it’s under the radar. Most people don’t know about it."
Stewart said the issue has been discussed at several City Council meetings this year. The fire district also presented some information at an open house at the Mountain Station in September and is working to include information about the measure on its website.
Another concern raised by opponents of the proposal is that special district boards see little coverage in local news media. Historically, there is little turnover in who sits on the five-person fire district board. Bob Weiss called it an “opaque” system.
"I am not against fire safety or ambulance by any means of the imagination," Curt Weiss, who is not related to Bob Weiss, said during public comment Tuesday.
He expressed concern about the level of the tax increase and that, if the proposal passed, the city would not have a say in how the fire district board spends that tax revenue.
"Once it goes to a district … it is stuck in that district," he said. "You don't get it back, you don't make any decisions about it. I think it's a windfall tax at this point, based on how it's happened."
However, Stewart said there has been little public interest in serving on the fire district board. Right now, the district is largely an entity collecting taxes. If the measure passed, the board would make decisions on how emergency services are delivered to the community.
Stewart thinks this shift from taxing agency to managing agency would improve public participation on the board. He also said the board is considering steps to be more transparent, such as live streaming the meetings.
Growing demand for services
Though the number of people living in Steamboat, and the number of emergencies happening in the area, has increased over the past 15 years, the number of emergency personnel at Steamboat Fire Rescue has stayed at about 30 full-time equivalent employees. All of Steamboat's firefighters also are trained as EMTs, at a minimum.
Over the past nine years, Steamboat Fire Rescue has seen a 24 percent increase in calls and a 64 percent increase in concurrent calls, which is when emergency personnel are working more than one call at a time. These concurrent calls are what the agency is struggling with most.
Stewart recalled a series of incidents on Christmas Day in 2017, when Steamboat resident Nick Rose went into cardiac arrest while cross-country skiing at Howelsen Hill. A full crew of eight first responders arrived on the scene and quickly realized that they'd have to carry Rose quite a distance from where he was disabled on the Nordic trails.
Just as they had started to transport Rose to the hospital, another call came: A person had broken a hip. An off-duty firefighter came in from home to respond to the call, picking up another firefighter from the scene of the heart attack.
Then, a third call came in. Someone had broken a leg at Steamboat Resort. Another off-duty firefighter went to work, picking up from the hospital one of the first responders who was on the scene of the cardiac arrest.
"If you had switched any one of those calls — if Nick’s call hadn't come in first — it probably would’ve had a different outcome," Stewart said. "Because we only would’ve responded with two people, and it would’ve taken us longer to get him to the ambulance. It would’ve taken us longer to do CPR. The likelihood that he would not survive that event would've been much higher."
If the proposal is not passed, he said, City Council would have to make some tough decisions about funding emergency services.