Rural fire district gets tax increase

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— Voters in the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District approved a pair of referenda Tuesday night, effectively voting to continue their marriage with the city of Steamboat Springs. The vote means the fire trucks will still roll out of the downtown station in January when a chimney fire is reported somewhere in the rural area surrounding Steamboat Springs.

Referendum 5A authorized the district board to raise property taxes and Referendum 5B authorizes the district to use the proceeds to bond for a new fire station and purchase equipment, among other things.

The vote in favor of 5A was 1,219 to 636, a near two-to-one margin. Referendum 5B prevailed 1,114 to 699. About 3,000 voters, either living in the district, or living elsewhere in Colorado and owning property in the district, were eligible to vote.

City Councilman Paul Strong, who has worked closely on the new agreement, said the outcome of the election was good news for residents of the city as well as for those in the district.

"It's going to mean much better fire protection for the city as well as the district," Strong said Tuesday night. "It will provide full time fire staff, resulting in a shorter response time."

Strong predict the full time firefighters could be on duty by 2002.

The city is essentially the hole in the donut described by the district boundaries. The two political entities have a longstanding agreement that calls for the city fire department to respond to fire alarms in the district, and the ambulance and emergency medical service run by the district, to respond to calls within the city limits. The arrangement has avoided costly duplication of services, but the fiscal pressures created by growing communities have made the old financial arrangement undesirable to the city. The city has said if the two referenda had not passed, it would cease responding to fire calls in the district in January 2001.

Fire District board President Jane McLeod said that had the two referenda not passed, the board would have needed to meet promptly to reassess the entire situation. No clear contingency plan for providing fire protection to the district beyond 2000 existed going into the election.

The passage of the two referenda cements a new agreement between the district and the city which will allow them to continue sharing the cost of providing fire suppression and emergency medical services in both political jurisdictions.

The language of the referenda put to the voters this fall did not name a specific mill levy increase because capital and operating budgets aren't yet firm. Instead, Referendum 5A asked the voters to permit the district to increase district taxes by $130,000 next year, and "annually thereafter at a rate sufficient to generate no more than $520,000 in each year."

Referendum 5B asked the voters if the district could increase its debt by no more than $2 million with a repayment cost of not more than $4.2 million when interest is calculated. For the average homeowner in the district, Referendum 5A will mean a substantial increase in the amount of property tax they pay the district on a percentage basis. However, the actual amount of tax will be fairly modest the first year. Homeowners in the district paid tax of $48.10 on $300,000 of valuation in 1999. That amount would increase by $54 to to $102 in 2001. By 2005, property taxes on $300,000 of valuation in the district could increase by $165.

However, McLeod said it's important to understand that property tax collections will only be increased when budgets are set to increase operating costs or take on capital projects. If the projects aren't set to go forward and bonds issued, taxes won't be increased. Bonds aren't expected to be issued for at least two years, McLeod added.

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