Basalt fire district passes $1.98 million budget | AspenTimes.com

Basalt fire district passes $1.98 million budget

Scott Condon/The Aspen TimesBasalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson and paramedic Christine Benton show off the fire department's new ambulance. A state grant was key to the purchase.

BASALT – The Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District will dip into its reserves to balance its budget in 2012, but the chairman of the board of directors said the district remains on solid financial ground thanks to advance planning.

The board on Thursday night passed an operating budget of $1.98 million for next year. The district anticipates revenues of about $1.85 million. The $130,000 shortfall will come from reserves. The district has about $2 million in its reserve fund.

Fire district board chairman Bob Guion said the district was careful to avoid increasing its staff and boosting its operating budget when the financial climate was friendlier. When property values escalated between 2004 and 2009, the property tax revenues for special districts soared. The fire district plowed some of that windfall into an affordable housing project, but it also tucked funds away into its reserve fund.

“We feel very comfortable with where we’re at,” Guion said.

Fire Chief Scott Thompson said 2012 will be the fifth straight year that the department kept its operating fund relatively flat. Staff and board members anticipated falling revenues when the real estate bubble burst. Although the recession hit in late 2008, the drop in property values won’t be reflected in property tax revenues until next year.

Property values in the Eagle County portion of the Roaring Fork Valley generally dropped 33 percent.

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Thompson said the fire district has put capital expenditures for new equipment and vehicles “on hold” during the tough financial times. The last major equipment that was purchased primarily through the district’s funds was in 2008. A new ambulance was purchased this year thanks to a grant.

Guion said the fire district’s board set the goal during the budget process of maintaining current levels of service while avoiding layoffs. The district has 13 paid employees, including the fire chief, administrative aids and emergency responders. A paid paramedic staffs the station 24 hours per day.

To reach its goals, the board had to dip into reserves. “I think that’s why we have reserves,” Guion said. The fund exists to buy equipment and vehicles, and cover shortfalls in the budget.

The district is determined not to approach voters for a property tax increase for its operations, Guion said. Bonds that were sold to raise the funds to build the fire station in El Jebel and purchase fire trucks will be paid off in 2015. The district may consider at that time asking voters to approve an extension of the property tax used to pay off those bonds. The extended property tax could be a tool to replace fire trucks and other aging equipment. The decision will hinge in large part on the state of the economy.

The Basalt Fire Department was able to add a critical new piece of equipment this fall despite tough economic times.

The fire department added a state-of-the-art ambulance that cost $165,000.

“We didn’t use any taxpayer funding to pay for this,” said Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson. Specifically, no property taxes from within the fire district were used for the purchase.

The department received a grant for $78,000 from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. It funds a grant program through a fee added to vehicle registrations. The grant covered 50 percent of the ambulance price and the entire cost of some of the safety equipment upgrades.

The district’s impact fee on new development generated another $30,000. About $23,000 of that $30,000 came from the construction of the Whole Foods Market grocery store at Willits Town Center.

The balance of the ambulance purchase price, about $55,000, was covered through funds the department received for helping fight wildland fires outside the district. It was paid for its efforts by the federal government.

Thompson said the new ambulance is far more advanced than the department’s older vehicles. It’s got suspension that allows the vehicle to be lowered so that stretchers can be slid in and workers can avoid lifting patients. A monitor on the dash area shows a feed from a camera on the back of the ambulance. That provides the driver with another view while backing up. A “black box” similar to those used in aircraft records all actions taken by the driver and the maneuvers of the ambulance.

“We’re not playing Big Brother but it is going to help us,” Thompson said, explaining that the record will help in case of an accident.

The new ambulance will be based out of the department’s El Jebel station.

The department had an ambulance replacement in its capital expenditures budget, then the recession hit. “So we quit buying vehicles,” Thompson said. All available funds are being channeled to operations so the department doesn’t have to reduce services.

An ambulance last was purchased in 2006. The vehicle has just over 70,000 miles and it is used on roughly 300 calls per year. It will be rotated to the Basalt station, allowing an older ambulance to be rotated out of regular service.

scondon@aspentimes.com