Basalt Fire District seeks voter approval of nuanced question

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

The Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District has a question on the November ballot that has a bit of a nuance to it.

The fire district is seeking voter approval to increase debt that would be repaid through property taxes, but it’s not that simple. The fire district also is paying off bonds that were issued in 1995 and repaid through property taxes.

So, the fire district is really seeking to replace the existing debt that will expire this year with a new debt. It just needs to make the situation clear to its constituents.

“We’re not asking for any more money — no more than they’re giving us,” said Ed Van Walraven, president of the fire district’s board of directors.

“They’re not going to see an increase in their tax statement.”Ed Van Walraven, Basalt Fire District board president

The question on the ballot-seeks permission to increase debt by $3.9 million for a capital-improvement fund. A property tax increase would repay the debt over 20 years.

The district wants to use the proceeds to acquire additional affordable-housing units, continue the remodeling and renovation of the Basalt fire station and acquire new firefighting equipment.

Approval of the question also would allow the district to replenish its reserve fund, according to Van Walraven.

The fire district tightened its belt during the recession and deferred capital-improvement projects, Van Walraven said. It successfully sought a property tax increase in 2010 for operations funds. It sought that increase because calls for service for the district, which also operates emergency medical services in the midvalley, were shooting up at a time its budget was going down. The approval allowed the district to avoid cuts in service. The operating budget this year is $2.7 million.

The board of directors looked at various options to raise funds for capital improvements and determined that seeking voter approval for new debt was the best route — in large part because an old debt will be paid off this year.

The property tax increase approved in 1995 will raise $300,000 this year — the final amount necessary to pay off the bonds issued 20 years ago, according to Basalt Deputy Fire Chief Pete Bradshaw. With that debt retired, fire-district officials figured they would seek new debt to take the old debt’s place. The fire district’s action wouldn’t affect a property owner’s tax bill.

“They’re not going to see an increase in their tax statement,” Van Walraven said.

For a house valued at $500,000, approval of the proposed debt would equate to $36 per year, according to the fire district’s calculations. That’s the same as the debt being retired, according to the district.

It’s tough to gauge the mood of taxpayers. On one hand, the economy improved by leaps and bounds in the Roaring Fork Valley this year — from tourist visits to sales tax revenue to property values. On the other hand, the ballot will feature the Roaring Fork School District’s question to seek a substantial property tax increase for capital improvements and affordable housing.

“There’s never a good time to ask anybody for money,” Van Walraven said.

The board voted 5-0 to place the question on the ballot. The board members are Leroy Duroux, Mark Kittle, John Young and Vonda Williams, in addition to Van Walraven.

If approved, the fire district has a list of projects to pursue.

The district owns four affordable-housing units in Basalt and one in Old Snowmass, Bradshaw said. It is negotiating on acquiring two units at Willits Town Center but wants to look at other options. Housing is a key to attracting and retaining paid staff and volunteers, he said.

If the ballot measure succeeds, the fire district won’t add firetrucks and other apparatus — it will just update its fleet, according to Bradshaw and Van Walraven. For example, the district would replace its existing ladder firetruck with a larger model that could effectively battle a fire at the larger buildings constructed and under construction at Willits Town Center.

“We’re trying to think ahead,” Van Walraven said.

Ballots for the election will be mailed out by county clerks in the first week of October.