Jill Beathard

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October 23, 2012
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Fire district wants mill increase to maintain current services

SNOWMASS VILLAGE - The Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District is asking the voters to approve on Nov. 6 a 3.0 mill levy increase, the proceeds of which would be collected and spent by the district.

The district is asking for the increase in light of an expected reduction in property values that would result in reduced funding, possibly translating into a reduction in the services it provides.

Property tax revenue is the district's primary source of funding. Property values already took a major hit in 2011, dropping 27.5 percent, and are expected to fall another 25 percent in 2013, according to the district.

"It's really a no-growth ballot measure," said Fire Marshal John Mele. "The funds that would be achieved from this are not funds that are going to grow the fire department, add any positions or build a new station or any of that. It's basically just to try and make up for lost revenues over the past four years."

Fire Chief Steven Sowles said the purpose of the measure is to address the damage caused by the recession. The district has been running on reserves.

"If we want to stay and continue to offer paid fire services, if we want to continue to offer (Advanced Life Support) ambulance services, we're going to have to come up with funding some place because you just can't run on reserves forever," Sowles said.

Sowles said the district's board of directors budgeted with a $347,000 shortfall this year. The district has made some reductions and used reserves to adjust for that, but it might still be using some reserve money to operate by the end of the year.

"If we don't get 5C passed, then next year we're needing to add $500,000 to that $347,000 number, because that's the amount we're short," Sowles said. "And that wipes out our reserves completely. And in 2014, if it doesn't get passed in 2013 again, we essentially would close the doors. ... If it doesn't pass in this year, I'm already prepared to lay off three to four people."

Sowles said there will always be some kind of fire department, such as a volunteer organization, and that residents could choose that as an option. Snowmass' volunteer fire department began evolving into a paid organization in 1988, Mele said.

Snowmass Police Sgt. Brian Olson, a member of the Snowmass-Wildcat board of directors, reiterated that the goal of 5C is to maintain the 2011 budgeting levels through 2014.

"The board didn't want to have the level of service change," Olson said.

Olson said he hasn't received any negative feedback about the proposal, nor is he aware of any organizations fighting the measure.

He said he thinks the fire department is very conservative, especially after it has run on the same mill level, 3.601, since 2001.

According to the district, its mill levy is below the mean for similar fire agencies on the Western Slope. The increase would put it slightly above districts such as Rifle and Glenwood Rural, which are both above 6.0.

Currently, the fire district responds to calls in less than five minutes and runs three ambulances in a rotation. The ALS service generates revenue and essentially pays for itself, Sowles said. However, Mele said losing personnel would likely mean dropping one ambulance, which could result in longer response times and the district having to rely more on mutual aid from other organizations, such as Aspen Ambulance, which can take as long as 20 minutes to get a truck to Snowmass Village.

"We need to ask the taxpayers: 'Do you like the services, or would you rather see something different?" Sowles said. "I don't set that level of service. That's the taxpayers, that's their prerogative. If they want a volunteer fire department then they can vote that way. If they want to continue a paid department they can do that as well."

The 3.0 mills would be phased in over two years, with 1.57 mills taking effect in 2013 and 1.43 in 2014, the same year property values are expected to drop.


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The Aspen Times Updated Oct 24, 2012 02:50PM Published Oct 23, 2012 04:26PM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.