Snowmass fire district to forego some of its tax windfall |

Snowmass fire district to forego some of its tax windfall

Madeleine Osberger
Snowmass Village correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

SNOWMASS VILLAGE – After a lengthy and spirited discussion by board members, the Snowmass/Wildcat Fire Protection District has agreed to reduce its mill levy for next year, Fire Chief Steve Sowles confirmed this week.

The mill levy for district operations will drop from the existing 3.601 to 3.293 in 2010, which means the district will forego about one-third, or an estimated $220,000, of the property tax windfall it could have taken in.

“I gave (the board) 12 different options and a thermometer (to measure the effects),” Sowles said. The three seated board members, Bill Boineau, Tom Dunlap and Brian Olson (Irene Greiser and Donna Aiken were absent), were unanimous in their decision, but it didn’t come easily. Boineau, acting as a board member and not the town’s mayor, said he had suggested a 50 percent cut but “other members didn’t want to come down that far.”

Snowmass/Wildcat is following the lead of other taxing districts in Aspen and Pitkin County that have been sympathetic to the plight of property owners who feel slammed by rocketing property valuations at the same time they are being squeezed by the economy. The Aspen Fire Protection District has decided to reduce its mill levy so as not to take in any additional property tax revenue; the Basalt district opted to split the difference and collect roughly half of its anticipated windfall.

Taxing districts with mill levies that voters have exempted from limits on revenue growth – the fire districts, for example – stand to see a significant windfall in property tax collections next year due to a roughly 38 percent increase in property values in Pitkin County.

While the Snowmass Village Financial Advisory Board had put forward recommendations on reducing the town’s road fund mill levy, it has no jurisdiction over the fire district. Still, advisory board member Carolyn Purvis called the Snowmass/Wildcat board’s decision to reduce its levy “basically a good thing. People are going to get hit pretty hard if they don’t.”

Boineau said the impact to taxpayers was the board’s overriding concern, though he and others are sympathetic to the wage freeze fire district employees endured in 2009, which will now carry over into 2010. Sowles is also upset about about losing $300,000 in potential federal grant money because of the decision.

While fire department staffing won’t be reduced as a result of the drop in the mill levy, Sowles already feels his department needs more employees than the five per shift that are budgeted. Grant money could have provided funding for three additional firefighter paramedics for up to three years, Sowles said.

“How do you manage this gigantic thing in town?” Sowles said in reference to the Base Village development. “I’ve got 35 years of experience. I know we’re just pushing our luck.”

He is among those who believe that a mill levy increase will be needed sooner rather than later.

“There are a bunch of needs we are going to have, but we’ll have to bite the stick and deal with it later,” Boineau agreed.

While the Snowmass Village district employs a paid staff, Boineau said he believes the department could be augmented by volunteers. “I’m of the opinion there is a place for volunteers,” he said.

Sowles, meanwhile, said he informed the board that, in the long term, there are large expenditures that need to be addressed. The station and staffing are among them, he said.

The extra revenues that will be retained in 2010 will be used to offset operating cost increases, and to bolster the district’s emergency and volunteer retirement funds.

Thanks to a district-approved capital fund increase three years ago, there will be money available to replace a fire engine that has been sold, allowing the Snowmass/Wildcat Fire Protection District to provide mutual aid to neighboring departments without leaving Snowmass Village without an “attack engine,” according to Sowles.

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