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Glenwood fire district facing budget crunch

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Glenwood Rural Fire District officials are being pressed by the city to decide soon how to address a projected $220,000 budget shortfall for next year, or face the prospect of deep cuts in emergency services.

The district board meets this Tuesday to discuss options including a possible property tax hike that rural voters would be asked to approve in order to maintain existing emergency medical and firefighting service levels.

Such cuts would not only affect services in the rural areas, but in the city as well, Glenwood Springs City Manager Jeff Hecksel said at a Thursday work session with city council.

Up to 10 fire department staff positions may need to be cut if the deficit cannot be made up, Hecksel said.

“That would have an enormous impact on the level of service,” he said.

Many of those positions have been added over the last nine years in an effort to increase the local fire insurance ratings.

“That’s how we’ve gotten to this point,” Hecksel said.

On the flip side, though, any service reductions would affect local fire insurance ratings, which in turn affect homeowners’ insurance rates, he said.

District and city officials have been aware of the impending revenue shortfall for some time.

For this year, the city revised a funding formula in an intergovernmental agreement with the district to shift about $55,000 from the district to the city as part of the fire department’s overall $3 million operating budget.

In developing the 2010 budget, Hecksel said it became clear that the district would not generate enough money to pay for its obligation even under the revised agreement. And the deficit will only continue to grow in future years if something isn’t done, he said.

The rural district covers 64 square miles surrounding Glenwood Springs. It’s an independent taxing authority with its own elected board operating under an agreement with the city. In return for a share of the district’s property tax revenues, the city provides fire protection and ambulance service to the rural areas.

Hecksel said the district’s current tax levy of 6.5 mills is inadequate to maintain its end of the budgetary obligation.

In order to cover existing levels of service, the levy would need to be about 8.8 mills, he said. And if additional staffing increases are funded, as proposed, the mill levy would have to be even higher.

“At this time the city does not have funding available for staffing increases unless paid for with grant proceeds,” Hecksel indicated in a memo to city council at Thursday’s meeting. “There are grants available for firefighter positions.”

Options for the city include reducing the budget for fire and emergency services, or possibly even terminating the intergovernmental agreement with the district.

The latter decision would have significant impacts for both the district and the city, Hecksel said.

Mayor Bruce Christensen expressed frustration that the district hasn’t prepared for the likelihood that it will need to ask for a tax hike.

“I don’t think we’re getting the message across that they need to fix this,” he said.

Longer term, he said it may be necessary to explore creating a completely separate fire protection district including the city and rural areas as a single taxing entity and removing the city from the equation altogether.

Glenwood Springs is unique in the way it funds emergency services using a combination of city general fund sales taxes and property taxes. Most area communities have property owners pay into a single fire protection district.

“This is something [the district] has been concerned about,” Hecksel said. “It’s not an easy thing to go ask for money from taxpayers, but they’ve stretched this as long as they can.”

Fire district board chairman Bill Livingston could not be immediately reached for comment. The district board meets at 4 p.m. Tuesday at Station 2, 806 Cooper Ave., Glenwood Springs.

jstroud@postindependent.com


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