Basalt, Snowmass firefighters asking voters for funding help
Basalt and Snowmass Village firefighters are, metaphorically speaking, walking on water right now after teaming with regional and federal firefighters to save the midvalley from the Lake Christine Fire last summer.
The career and volunteer firefighters of the merged departments met the challenges posed July 3 and 4 by the wind-whipped blaze and lost only three homes when well over 100 were threatened in El Jebel and countless others were imperiled in and near Basalt.
Now, the fire departments are facing a challenge that cannot be tackled with training, equipment and bravery. It’s a financial problem that has been brewing for years due to external factors. This time, the firefighters are seeking help from voters.
“We’re not asking for a tax increase. We need an adjustment to keep our revenues stable,” said Scott Thompson, fire chief for the Basalt and Snowmass Village departments.
The fire districts are asking voters to approve ballot questions that will allow them to adjust their mill levies so the departments’ revenue remains the same.
Without the adjustment, the Basalt district’s revenue would drop an estimated $279,000 in 2020 from the amount collected in 2017 and 2018. The Snowmass Village department would experience a decrease estimated at $373,000.
Basalt and Rural Fire District currently collects $2.92 million from 8 mills. It would need to increase the mill levy to 8.9 mills in 2020 to collect that same revenue.
Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District currently collects $3.3 million from 6.601 mills. It would need to increase the mill levy to 7.4 mills in 2020 to collect that same revenue.
Without action, the revenue will fall because of a provision in the Colorado Constitution called the Gallagher Amendment, which sets ratios for residential and non-residential property. As more homes get developed in the state, the tax rate applied to residences is decreased to stay within the overall ratio.
Likewise, the rate on commercial, agriculture and other non-residential property increases.
That’s worked out well in the Front Range and other metropolitan areas that have large commercial bases that offset the decrease in tax revenue from residences. It’s not so fine in rural areas.
“It’s going to make some special districts go broke,” Thompson said.
Taxing districts in Colorado are prohibited by a second state constitutional provision called the TABOR Amendment from simply raising their mill levy to account for the decreasing revenue. They must get voter approval.
Both the Basalt and Snowmass-Wildcat fire districts are asking voters to approve questions to keep revenue at the 2017 level. The Basalt question is 7F on the Eagle and Pitkin County ballots (the district covers parts of both counties). The Snowmass Village question is 6B in Pitkin County.
Thompson stressed this is about maintaining revenue at the current level, not increasing them.
“If this is defeated, we would have to come back to voters and ask for a tax increase,” he said. “We can’t reduce services. Our calls for service go up every month, every year.”
Both departments provide firefighting and emergency medical services to constituents.
If the measures were defeated, residential taxes would decrease $9 per year for each $100,000 of value. Commercial taxes wouldn’t change.
Here is the complicated part — if the measures are approved, residential property owners still might see their tax bill for the fire districts decrease slightly starting in 2020 because of a lower statewide residential assessment rate. Non-residential rates would stay the same or rise slightly.
Thompson also warned that approval only provides “a short-term fix” to the revenue challenge. The fire districts still might have to approach voters for a tax increase in the future, he said. Approval would make revenue stable, but it wouldn’t account for inflation and the increases in calls for service.
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