Taxing issues for fire district

Jobs cannot be filled with weak sales tax returns

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— In the wake of the failed fire tax ballot issue, the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District is left asking how and when the city will fund the six additional staff members it promised.

In an agreement that went into effect at the beginning of 2002, the city agreed to fund 12 full-time staff members.

But weak sales tax returns has meant the city is unwilling and unable to boost its funding for six more full-time EMS technicians and firefighters.

"A certain number were scheduled a couple of years ago and all were to be hired by now," City Manager Paul Hughes said. "But the way the budget has gone for 2002 and 2003, it simply has not been possible."

Rural fire district board members said they know the city is financially strapped, but the district has come up with its share of the agreement.

"We need to figure out a way to honor that agreement. It is an issue of strictly being able to provide adequate services," board member Jane McLeod said. "We are at a slower pace than we would like to be."

The district has a 5.6 mill levy for its fire and ambulance protection. Board member Bob Kuusinen said it has the funds to provide the extra staffing.

A formula figures out the rural fire district's share of the bill using number of calls and population. Right now, the district pays for 28 percent of operating costs and 33 percent of capital projects, Kuusinen said.

"We have met our responsibilities to be able to fund (the staff), based on the formula," Kuusinen said. "(The city) is unable to fit that into their budget with the constraints. Overall, there is not much we can say and do."

Even without the city's proposed fire tax, the rural fire district had anticipated at least three more staff members. It might have been a misunderstanding, Kuusinen said, but it is still a disappointment.

The upside is the rural fire district will not have to increase taxes to pay for the additional staffing.

"It is good news, but we also anticipated higher levels of service," Kuusinen said.

If the city's proposed 5 mill property tax, which was dedicated to fire and ambulance services, had been approved, the city had intended to hire six more staff members. That would have doubled the existing staff.

The tax would have brought in $1.9 million to the fire department ? a $600,000 increase in what was budgeted for 2003.

The tax failed by 253 votes, with 1,931 against the tax and 1,678 in favor of it.

"We had hoped Referendum 2A would pass, giving us the ability to hire the remaining six all this year," Hughes said. "But it didn't pass, and there is no extra money to hire any more people. We will do this when we can. Unless we come up with more money from someplace, the fire and ambulance services will have to take the same chances (as other departments) in sharing what revenue we have."

Having a staff of 12 full-time employees would allow the city, and the 480 square miles of the surrounding area, to have four EMS technicians and firefighters on duty 24 hours a day.

At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Councilman Paul Strong said the rural fire district was upset at the city's inability to fund the additional staff.

He also said that at the next meeting with the rural fire district, there could be a discussion on merging the two entities to form one district that would be taxed.

Kuusinen said it is a possible long-term solution but is one that could take years to work out.

The city and rural fire district were supposed to meet Dec. 10, but the meeting has been moved to January.

"We would like to sit down and figure out what the next step is," McLeod said.

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