Property tax decision for fire, EMS services too close to call

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— Referendum 2A, a Steamboat Springs property tax to support ambulance and fire services, was a dead heat this morning with early voting ballots remaining to be counted.

With all eight precincts reporting, just 12 votes separated the issue 1,256 people had voted against the tax and 1,244 had voted for it.

The 5 mill property tax would generate $1.9 million and help a cash-strapped City Council.

"If we do not have a stabilized revenue source, we will not be able to fund all the things the city residents consistently want," City Council President Kathy Connell said.

The tax would guarantee the fire and ambulance department will operate on an annual $1.9 million budget. Right now, the fire and ambulance department is funded at $1.3 million. The new tax adds another $600,000 to the department for additional personnel and equipment and frees up $1.3 million in the general fund.

City residents with property valued at $325,000 would pay $148.69 per year if the tax is approved. Commercial properties would pay an extra $145 per year for every $100,000 of valuation.

The city has not had a property tax in more than 20 years. Since the late 1970s, the city has been funded mostly through sales taxes.

Council members have said the property tax is one way to move away from the tourism-dependent sales tax and tap into second-home owners' pockets.

Councilman Paul Strong said that second-home owners, who account for more than half of Steamboat residents, do not pay their share of city sales taxes because they are in Steamboat for only a few months of the year, but services are provided to their property year-round. Through property taxes, second-home owners pay for services such as snowplowing, road paving and fire and ambulance services.

The city has said it is planning to spend the $1.3 million in capital improvements but did not pass any resolutions to earmark the money. But council members have said the tax will help the city meet its goal of spending 15 percent of its budget on capital improvements.

The $1.3 million that is added back into the general fund budget would push the capital improvement spending to $2.5 million, which is about 12 percent of the total budget.

Fire Chief Bob Struble said the tax allows the department to increase its full-time employees from six to 12. And that base would allow four firefighters and EMS technicians on duty 24 hours per day. The department has been operating with two employees on duty around the clock but had agreed to four when they signed a consolidation agreement with the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District.

By having four full-time firefighters and EMS technicians, response time would drop and that could lower insurance rates for commercial businesses, Struble said.

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