Steamboat fire district seeks ballot measure to include city in district boundaries | SteamboatToday.com

Steamboat fire district seeks ballot measure to include city in district boundaries

Steamboat Springs firefighter Louis Gutschenritter completes a routine check of a chainsaw in front of the Mountain Fire Station. The Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District is seeking a ballot measure that, if approved, would include the city within the district boundaries. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For years, officials have referred to the Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District as "the donut" around the city. The hole of that donut could be filled in as the district seeks a vote to include the city in its borders — and its property taxes.

If voters approve it, the measure would incorporate city residents into the current district. The district would collect property taxes on properties within city limits, and the city of Steamboat would no longer fund firefighting and EMS services.

"From a citizen's perspective, there really won't be any change as far as how we provide our services," said Steamboat Fire Chief Mel Stewart. "We'll still respond to emergencies, to medical calls and to fires and any other type of rescue. We'd still work with other agencies to provide the best service we can."

Currently, Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue, a department within the city, is primarily funded by city sales tax. The fire district is funded by a property tax of up to 9 mills levied on properties within the district surrounding the city.

This rate changes with budgetary needs and is currently just above 6 mills, said Steamboat Springs City Manager Gary Suiter. The ballot measure would likely seek the same rate of taxation in the city, Stewart said.

The Fire District does not operate or maintain equipment and personnel for fire and EMS services. All of the Steamboat area firefighters are employees of the city. Through an agreement between the fire district and the city, Steamboat Fire Rescue responds to all emergencies in city limits and the surrounding district.

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As part of the agreement, the district and the city share costs based on a formula that considers where calls for service come from and other factors. This has typically resulted in the fire district paying for about one-third and the city paying for about two-thirds of the annual operating budget and capital expenses, like new equipment.

"Over time, the city is struggling to continue to provide all the services that the community would like to have with just sales tax," Stewart said. "The fire department is needing to grow to continue to meet the increasing demand for our services. We're seeing about a 3 to 5 percent increase in our call volume and our requests for services every year."

Graphic by Nicole Miller

Stewart said right now, firefighters and EMS personnel are having trouble handling the call volume. At any given time, eight staff members are on call to respond to emergencies in the city and the district, an area of about 438 square miles. Call volume has increased, while the number of staff members responding to those calls has remained the same.

"When we have two calls going, we're running the second call understaffed a lot of the time," Stewart said. "When we have three calls going, we're definitely running understaffed. Occasionally, we have four calls actually going at the same time, and then, we're really scrambling."

Stewart said in these situations, Steamboat firefighters and EMS often rely on coworkers who are willing to come in when they're off duty and additional help from the surrounding fire districts in Oak Creek, North Routt and West Routt.

Steamboat Fire Rescue staff responds to a number of calls beyond fires, including fire alarms, stuck elevators, carbon dioxide alarms, gas leaks and any medical emergency. Each firefighter is also trained, at a minimum, as an EMT, and some hold more advanced certification as paramedics.

If it's an emergency and it doesn't require a response from law enforcement, Steamboat Fire Rescue is called, Stewart said.

He said a property tax would provide a more stable source of funding, as it would be difficult to add needed staff using a budget largely based sales tax revenue.

Stewart added that during an economic downturn, sales tax revenue takes an immediate hit, while a fall in property tax revenues emerges more slowly. A property tax would allow the agency more time to react to a decrease in funding, he said.

If voters approve the inclusion, the city and the Fire District would share the cost of building a new firehouse in central Steamboat. The district's strategic plan calls for the addition of enough firefighters and EMS personnel to staff another fire engine and some additional administrative staff. It takes four people to fully staff an engine, but the current downtown station has quarters for only two crew members, Stewart said.

"We need a place for them, so we need a new station downtown for that," Stewart said.

Stewart said that if Steamboat city residents vote themselves into the district, the agency would have a large portion of the funding needed to build and staff a new station in the downtown area.

Steamboat Springs City Council is expected to approve a pre-inclusion agreement that sorts out the governance of the district should voters approve the inclusion of the city in the Fire District at the council’s next meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 4.

On the city's side, inclusion in the Fire District would create a financial offset of about $1.8 million. On Sept. 18, City Council will discuss what this offset would be dedicated to.

"This would create a funding offset of $1,860,000 that could then potentially result in some sort of sales tax rebate to residents," said city finance director Kim Weber. "It could help increase funding to transit. It could help funding in other areas or maybe a combination of all of those items."

In November, the Steamboat Springs Fire Protection District, along with West Routt Fire Protection District, will also seek a ballot measure to address possible revenue loss due to changes in assessed property values due to the Gallagher Amendment to the Taxpayers Bill of Rights.

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

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