Basalt Fire seeks to fight fire with property tax increase
Asking taxpayers for more money in two of the Colorado counties that saw the greatest increase in property valuations might seem like an exercise in futility.
The Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District is asking its taxpayers to authorize a $26 million bond issuance with a maximum repayment of $42 million. The money would fund a number of capital projects for the district, including the construction of an on-site training facility, employee housing units, and the purchase of nearly 5 acres of land on which the El Jebel Station 42 currently sits or is next to.
“We really want to be able to set that in stone that this will always be a fire station, number one, and then number two, there’s not a lot of property that’s available and affordable that we can do our training on,” said Scott Thompson, chief of Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority. The fire authority runs the operations of the Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District and the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District.
The Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District is a special tax district within both Pitkin and Eagle counties. Between the Snowmass and Basalt districts, the authority covers approximately 520 square miles, though most of the property owners are located in Eagle County. With its borders extending up the Fryingpan River toward the Continental Divide, the district also includes a significant swath of public land.
Expanding facilities to meet expanding demand
As midvalley has seen significant growth in recent years with locals and newcomers priced out of Aspen and moving downvalley, Thompson said midvalley fire calls have grown with it. The fire authority’s website says they field 2,124 calls annually.
“The last two years, prior to this year, we’ve seen a 10% increase in our call volume. So that’s two years in a row,” Thompson said. “And then this year, we’re at 7% increase so far this year, but I’m guessing it’s going to go to 10%.”
Station 42 in El Jebel sits on a 2.3-acre parcel at 1089 JW Drive, across the street from a neighborhood and in front of an elk ranch. The district intends to purchase the 2.3 acres, plus an additional parcel about 2.3 acres, from El Jebel-based Crawford Properties. Thompson said they’ve already discussed the purchase and Crawford Properties wants to sell to the fire district.
The current station building was constructed about 20 years ago, and Thompson said the staff is rapidly outgrowing its confines.
The station has two firefighters on-duty and in the station at any given time and shift structure depends on whether the firefighter is a volunteer or career. Guided by the authority’s master plan, the station hopes to add two more firefighters to its roster in the coming years. Funds for their salaries will come out of the operating budget, Thompson said.
But to accommodate the extra firefighters, the station wants to expand and modernize the crew quarters for those on shift. Some of the storage space meant for the three shifts of firefighters that make up the workweek have been occupied by others working in the building, or the space is just too small for that many bodies cycling through.
The district’s board of directors also wants to purchase 4-6 prefabricated, or modular, townhomes to help recruitment and retention. The plans have yet to be finalized, but Thompson said the district has found 2 bed/2 bath units tend to fit the needs of their staff. He sees the firefighter housing as a launching pad to homeownership, as the board allows for the subsidization of more than 50% of the market rate employee housing units.
“The fire board has already acquired 19 rental units. And adding 4-6 more is very essential to retaining (firefighters) and bringing firefighters in from out of the area, if we can’t find them local,” Thompson said.
If budget permits, Thompson said they will build six townhomes. But if construction estimates only allow for four or five, they will build the foundational infrastructure for what they can’t afford at the moment to plan for future construction.
The plans also call for a wood burn building and a new maintenance facility at the edges of the property. Thompson noted that with a firefighting training facility in the district, property owners could expect a reduction in their fire insurance bill. The presence of a training facility boosts a fire departments’ Verisk Public Protection Classification score.
In the 2023 property valuation cycle, Pitkin County saw the greatest average jump in assessed property valuations: 92%, with some properties seeing jumps as high as 200%. Eagle County is not far behind. Thompson said property valuation jumps averaged 60% in the fire districts.
So why ask the voters for more of their money in a year when property owners will see a historic — though not likely totally in congruence with their assessed value — jump in property taxes?
“The longer we wait we just don’t have the bedrooms to house the people that we need on duty. So, you know, it’s growth. This is what growth has done to us,” Thompson said.
And as construction costs continue to climb post-COVID-19, Thompson said the district worries about waiting too long and only seeing even more bloated construction bills.
“We were desperately waiting for the 2024 year … So, you know, we were waiting for that hoping for that to be able to add to our manpower, get our wages a little bit higher,” he said. “But the bond issue, we’re just asking to borrow the money for a construction project that the longer we put it off, the more it’s going to cost.”
The ballot measure states that the debt will be paid off by raising district taxes by $2.1 million annually.
“We’re (estimating an increase) between $20 and $21 per $100,000 (of a property’s assessed value) per year. So that’s around $200 for a million-dollar property per year,” Thompson said. “So across the board, I think that’s a pretty modest increase.”
The maximum repayment cost will be $42 million. Thompson said that number is a worst-case scenario calculation based on interest rates that could be refinanced later, but it is possible that the taxpayers would be paying that debt off for a while.
Still, many property owners will balk at adding a dollar more to their tax bills. Thompson and Jenn Thompson, finance director for the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority, said their goal is to lower the mill levy rate by one mill, or $1 in property tax levied per $1,000 of a property’s assessed value, for their tax base.
If the ballot issue passes, the district will work with a Denver-based firm to sell the bonds at a best-case scenario interest rate, which Thompson estimates could take 6-8 months. Once issued, the district will have three years to spend the proceeds.
The district polled its tax base earlier this year on the potential success of such a ballot measure. With 60-69% of participants in favor of the bond issuance and subsequent property tax raise, Thompson said the board was confident in putting forth the ballot question.
In the TABOR Pro and Con statements, most pro-comments highlighted the need to provide housing for firefighters. Against cited forthcoming high property tax bills. The ballot issue will be 7A on both county ballots.