John T. Mele
Guest columnist
Snowmass Village, CO, Colorado

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August 7, 2012
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Guest column: Mill levy helps keep Snowmass Village safe

This year is shaping up to be very concerning for the wildfire record books in Colorado. Explosive wildland fires have devastated more than 100,000 acres of our beautiful state and along with the charred landscape several hundred of our Front Range neighbors' homes have been consumed.

Fortunately, we were able to send manpower and an engine early on to help before our own drought conditions warranted that we keep our firefighting defenses closer to home. Many small communities like Snowmass Village had the very real potential of having their own uncontrollable conflagration.

In Snowmass Village, many residents requested to have wildland property inspections and started following our recommendations to create "defensible space" on their properties. Maintaining a safety perimeter around their homes will be a long-term commitment and a small price to share that will help us have a successful outcome should a wildfire threaten our Village. We remain at your service in order to provide these free personal onsite inspections at your request.

Since the "monsoon season" has arrived, much of the concern for a major wildland fire has eased, but we must remain vigilant and continue our mitigation efforts. History has shown us that our own worst wildfires in Pitkin County have been during the months of September and October.

On a separate but just as concerning front, the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District has been working through the impacts of the economic downturn that has gripped many of our personal budgets.

Fire Chief Steven Sowles and our Board of Directors have been very strategic over the past four years in preparing for these financial impacts as our property values continue to decline and affect funding revenues for your emergency ambulance and fire protection. Very stringent budgeting has kept the district "afloat" and in a position to provide you with prompt emergency care and transport. Unfortunately this level of emergency service is about to change abruptly unless we take action as a community.

In 2012, the fire district lost nearly $683,000 in tax revenues due to property assessments that occurred in 2011 (a 27 percent reduction in property values). Our research informs us that we can likely expect another 25 percent drop in assessed property values from the 2013 assessment. This 25 percent additional loss to property values will result in an additional $477,000 deficit to our fire department's general operations budget. The combined loss to the general operations of the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District will be at least $1,160,000.

In order to continue our existing operational levels we were forced to approve our 2012 budget with a $347,000 deficit. As all of us are working very hard to reduce this number by year's end, the fact remains that this deficit will have to be subtracted from our reserves to cover the shortfall. Alarmingly, with a total potential loss of nearly $1.2 million dollars, the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District will run out of our reserves and will be unable to continue maintaining current staffing levels in the upcoming year.

We know that this will strip our emergency response personnel to a point that it will affect response times and drastically reduce the number of firefighters/emergency medical technicians responding to an emergency in Snowmass Village. This shortfall even has the potential to threaten the availability of any immediate response to emergency calls. That is, unless we act accordingly and in a timely manner.

As a result of these continued property assessment shortfalls that we cannot control, the Snowmass-Wildcat board of directors along with Chief Sowles believe it is our responsibility to inform you that the district has been working with Sherman and Howard of Denver to prepare a ballot question for this November's election that would raise the lost $1.2 million in revenues. The passage of this measure would ensure that the district will be able to continue providing the quality of emergency services that our community and visitors have relied upon for many years and has come to expect from us. In short, to raise the lost revenue, the district will be proposing a 3.0 mill levy increase.

Our board, along with Chief Sowles, understands the personal impacts that a mill levy increase will place on our homeowners especially during such a difficult financial time for everyone. But, since property taxes are the vehicle by which special districts operate, there are no other choices other than to raise new revenues or significantly impact operational levels below what we are providing today.

It's imperative that we stress that the district is not looking or desiring to increase staffing or service levels but simply hoping to continue to offer what the community expects and has been receiving. Please partner with us as we move forward into the future.

John T. Mele is the deputy chief and fire marshal of the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District. Reach him at

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The Aspen Times Updated Aug 7, 2012 07:40PM Published Aug 7, 2012 07:38PM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.