Basalt fire chief wants voters to take close look at ballot question

Staff report

Ballot question language is written to meet legal requirements, not necessarily to be clear and voter-friendly, as officials with the Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District are finding out.

The fire district is paying off bonds this year that voters approved 20 years ago. Question 4A on the ballot for constituents in Eagle and Pitkin counties seeks approval to extend the property tax at the same rate so the district can reissue new bonds.

The language is confusing to some. It could be construed as a new property tax when it’s an extension of an existing one. Government officials are prohibited from campaigning for or against an issue in Colorado, but they can engage in educational efforts. Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said he has stressed that the ballot question isn’t for property taxes greater than currently being collected by the fire district.

“We’re not raising taxes. It’s just a continuation of a bond we passed 20 years ago,” Thompson said. “The ballot question is very difficult. It’s unfortunate.”

The district is asking voters to approve an increase in debt by $3.9 million with a repayment cost not to exceed $6.8 million. It would be repaid in 20 years.

Thompson and other officials have stressed that taxpayers in the fire district won’t see their tax bills change because paying off the old debt offsets the new debt. The fire district’s board of directors voted 5-0 earlier this year to ask voters to extend that mill levy.

If approved, the new debt will help the district acquire additional affordable housing, remodel the stations in Basalt and El Jebel and acquire equipment. Thompson said the remodeling is needed at the Basalt station to make it so staff can be stationed there. Currently, there are some housing units but no place for workers to congregate.

The district also plans to close a deal on the purchase of two affordable-housing units that will be built at Willits Town Center.

A third use of the new debt will be buying equipment that the district says it cannot afford in its general-operations budget. That could include a ladder truck and a water pumper, both used for firefighting.

For a house valued at $500,000, approval of the proposed debt would equate to $36 per year, according to the fire district. A property owner’s tax bill would go down if the measure is defeated, but it wouldn’t go beyond the existing level if it is approved.

Ballots were mailed to voters earlier this month. The last day to get them in the hands of a county clerk is Nov. 3.