Aspen fire department joins property tax asks for this November | AspenTimes.com

Aspen fire department joins property tax asks for this November

Aspen area voters and property owners beware: The tax man is coming for you this November.

Aspen Volunteer Fire Department Chief Rick Balentine said Thursday that his board has given the thumbs-up to ask voters to approve a property tax increase worth about $3 million a year to fund the department's operations and other needs.

"Our board has a track record of being very good stewards of taxpayer money," Balentine said, noting that the board gave money back in the past when it received more property tax funds than it needed.

With that announcement, however, the Fire Department became the third Aspen area governmental or transportation agency likely to ask voters for property tax money in November.

Pitkin County commissioners this week decided to ask voters to increase the property tax mill levy behind the Healthy Community Fund, which finances much of the county's public health efforts and community wellness grants to valley nonprofits. In addition, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will hold a public hearing Aug. 9 to determine whether to ask voters in its eight jurisdictions to approve the agency's first property tax mill levy support.

"It's never good when you have competing local initiatives on the ballot," Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman said Thursday. "But, to me, this just shows the increased need to provide these critical services."

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Taken together, those three new or additional mill levies will cost Pitkin County property owners an additional approximately $150 a year per $500,000 worth of assessed value if approved by voters, according to figures supplied by the three agencies.

"It's never a good time to go for a mill-levy property tax increase," Newman said, noting that nearly every election seems to feature a special district taxing question. "What is the appetite of voters?"

The last time the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department asked voters to approve a mill levy to fund its operations was in 1953, Balentine said. At that time, voters in the fire district gave the thumbs up to a 0.87 mill levy that now brings in about $2 million a year, he said.

"We've been very fortunate because property values in Pitkin County have been on the increase most years," Balentine said.

However, the department's needs have increased too, he said.

Replacement fire engines cost about $1 million each. The district needs a disaster fund. Volunteers have become scarce in recent years and the new money would be used to hire full-time firefighters and build 12 to 14 units of dedicated firefighter housing at the North 40, he said.

But one of the main reasons to ask for the prospective increase, Balentine said, is a provision of the Colorado Constitution known as the Gallagher Amendment. That amendment, adopted in 1982, says homeowners are only allowed to pay 45 percent of the statewide property tax base, forcing a steady erosion of the residential assessment rate ever since.

The current residential assessment rate of 7.2 percent is set to decrease to 6.1 percent in 2019, Balentine said. That will translate to a $247,000 loss to the Aspen Fire Department's budget, he said.

"Our budget's right at $2 million, so we'd take a pretty big hit on it," Balentine said.

The department plans to ask voters in November to up its mill levy by 1.25 mills, which is equal to about $45 a year per $500,000 of assessed value, he said.

Balentine said he wanted to announce the department's mill levy plans on July 4 during the city's annual parade. But the Lake Christine Fire in Basalt — which has burned more than 12,000 acres — started July 3 and he said he didn't want to play on public fears in asking for more money.

"Because of the wildfire, we decided to wait, literally, until the smoke clears," Balentine said, though the fire continues to burn and election deadlines are looming. "We want people to take this on merit and not on fears."

If approved, the department would receive the whole 2.1 mills of funding in perpetuity, though it would decrease by half a mill in 2038 after the firefighter housing is paid off, he said.

By comparison, the Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District receives 8.8 mills, the Snowmass Wildcat Fire District receives 9.8 mills and the Carbondale Fire Protection District receives 9.3 mills, Balentine said.

Pitkin County commissioners directed members of their staff Tuesday to draft ballot language asking voters to reapprove an increased mill levy for the Healthy Community Fund for a longer period of time. If approved, property owners would pay about $35 year per $500,000 of assessed value for the fund — an increase of about $8 a year. They're also asking voters to approve the fund for nine years instead of six.

Thursday's announcement by Balentine took Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman by surprise, though Newman and Board Chairwoman Patti Clapper said they'd heard about the Fire Department's mill levy plans.

"It's the first I've heard of it," Poschman said. "It's going to make everybody nervous if we have (several) mill levy request coming in."

Still, he said fire protection, public health and public transportation are all important pillars of the community that deserve funding.

"The volunteer fire department here has done amazingly well in the last … 130 years," Poschman said. "But the population has grown."

RFTA's board has gone back and forth about how much property tax money to ask for. It initially floated the idea of a 3.65 mill levy, though that has since been scaled back to 2.65 mills after polling showed more support for the lower number, Dan Blankenship, RFTA CEO, said Thursday.

The board will make a final decision on how much to ask for after the Aug. 9 public hearing, he said. RFTA is currently funded solely by sales taxes and money from state and federal grants.

Blankenship also pointed out that voters on a statewide level will be asked two separate questions about funding transportation.

"All of those things will be on the ballot and, to some extent, will compete with each other for the support of voters," he said. "But … these are all hard to argue with.

"It's unfortunate we may be all going at the same time but … (we'll) just put it out there and people will make their decisions."

The five-year mill levy that supports Aspen Valley Hospital is set to expire in 2020, and officials will ask voters to reapprove it at that time, hospital CEO Dave Ressler said Thursday. The hospital has no plans to ask for an increase in the mill levy this year, he said.

jauslander@aspentimes.com