Steamboat council eyes property tax to fund emergency services; abandons pot, alcohol tax
Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue responding to more calls, says it needs more space
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As the city grows, Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue is responding to more emergencies. And according to local fire officials, more emergencies require more space, more personnel and more funding.
This year, Steamboat firefighters have responded to 1,248 calls as of June, a 3.4% increase over last year’s calls.
The biggest issue for the agency is an increase in concurrent calls when personnel are called to multiple emergencies at one time. When this happens, the department frequently responds with a partial crew or relies on off-duty staff members to respond to emergencies.
While Steamboat has seen a slight dip in concurrent calls so far this year — 4.2% fewer than 2018 — the overarching trend is an increase in multiple emergencies happening at the same time.
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Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue is funded jointly by the city and the Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District. After an effort to consolidate the city into the fire district, which would have levied the district’s property tax on property owners in the city limits, fizzled out, the city is now considering what would be its first property tax in about 40 years to fund staffing increases for the fire department.
“This is for fire service,” Fire Chief Mel Stewart said. “It’s not specifically to grow the fire department because we feel like we just want to grow. We provide a very good level of service today, and we want to be able to continue to provide that in the future as our demand is increasing.”
Exploring a property tax
On Tuesday, the Steamboat Springs City Council opted to pursue a 2-mill property tax to fund fire and emergency services, which would be placed before voters in November.
This measure would include a “de-Brucing” clause, which would remove a revenue cap required of all tax measures in Colorado under the Tax Payer Bill of Rights. This means the city will be able to keep and spend all of the revenue generated by the tax and would not be required to give TABOR rebates of revenue collected from the tax over the TABOR limit.
Some council members also expressed interest in a 3-mill property tax, possibly with a de-Brucing clause attached to it.
“I’d like to get more information from the community, between the 2 and 3 (mills),” said council member Lisel Petis.
For homeowners, a 2-mill property tax would result in an annual tax of about $15 per $100,000 of actual valuation. Under a 2-mill tax, commercial property owners would pay $58 per $100,000 of actual valuation.
Council voted 6-to-1 to direct staff to bring forward an ordinance that would put a 2-mill property tax with a de-Brucing measure on the ballot. Council Member Heather Sloop voted against the direction. She did not support adding a de-Brucing clause to the tax.
The council opted to designate the tax explicitly for fire and emergency services, instead of public safety. Designating revenue from the tax for public safety would allow revenue from the tax to fund police services in the city as well as fire and emergency services.
Council will hear the first reading on an ordinance putting the tax to the ballot at its Tuesday, July 23 meeting.
Other tax options to fund emergency services
In setting their sights on a property tax, council members shied away from taxing alcohol and marijuana, an option proposed by a citizens committee formed earlier this year to explore options to fund fire and emergency services.
City staff presented three options for council discussion, rooted in the committee’s funding recommendations:
- A 2-mill property tax and a 2% sales tax on retail marijuana and packaged alcohol,
- A 2-mill property tax,
- A 2-mill property tax and a 2% tax on retail marijuana, and
- A 3-mill property tax.
Adding staff and funding a new fire station
Even if voters approved a 2-mill or 3-mill property tax, the approximately $1.3 million it would generate annually is not enough alone to fund the fire department’s additional staff. With a 2-mill tax, the city would have to dip deeper into the general fund or another funding source in 2022. With 3-mills, the city would have to find additional funding in 2024.
“Based on those projections, in order to meet the staffing projection, when it goes red, there’d have to be more money coming from the general fund if we were to continue forward with following the strategic staffing plan,” Stewart said.
The city recently revisited the agency’s strategic plan, which had called for the addition of 14 new staff members by 2023. The plan now calls for staff to be added over a longer time frame, adding the same amount of staff by 2025, starting with three new staff members to increase the number of staff on fire and ambulance crews in 2020. Deputy Chief Chuck Cerasoli said the department plans to add three staff members later this year, though they will serve to reduce overtime and fatigue for existing staff members, not to added the needed crew members to respond to concurrent calls.
“We’ll just continue to do the best job that we can,” Stewart said. “In the original plan, we hadn’t planned on adding anybody in 2020. In some ways, it starts giving us a little bit of relief starting next year, but it definitely spreads things out. We’re also having to work within funding constraints.”
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
Plans are also in the works to build a new fire station, at an estimated cost of about $12 million not including the cost of land. Funding for the new station would likely be shared between the city and the Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District. Possible funding sources include revenue savings, money from the fire district, sale of the now former Steamboat Springs Police Station on Yampa Street, certificates of participation, revenue bonds or money from reserves.
To view the City Council’s discussion on this topic, visit steamboatsprings.net/agendas.
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