Steamboat Springs If voters approve the fire tax on the Nov. 5 ballot, it will be the first time in more than 20 years property taxes support the city budget.
The city is asking for a 5 mill tax levy to raise $1.9 million for fire and ambulance services. That means for every $100,000 in value, homeowners would pay $46 and commercial owners would pay $145.
Although the tax is being touted as a tax for Fire and Emergency Medical Services, it would provide much more than that to the city.
It is a chance for the city to free up $1.3 million for the City Council to use on capital improvement projects.
It is also a chance to move away from the tourism-dependent sales tax by imposing property taxes, which taps into second-home owners' pockets.
But the main benefit Councilman Paul Strong sees is the $1.9 million would be guaranteed to the fire and ambulance departments.
"As the city budget gets tighter and tighter, it is going to be harder and harder to maintain fire and EMS services, much less increase them," Strong said.
Strong said that by ordinance, the $1.9 million the tax would raise is dedicated to fire and ambulance services. The city has said it plans to keep funding the fire and ambulance department even if the tax does not pass. This year the city put $1.3 million in its budget for the department.
But this tax would guarantee $1.9 million a year is spent on fire and emergency medical services, which means the department would not have to compete with other city departments for money or have to cut its budget when sales tax dollars dwindled.
The extra $600,000 would allow for six more full-time employees and capital improvements.
When the city consolidated with the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District in January, part of the agreement was to provide 12 full-time employees. Even though district residents pay 5.6 mills of property tax, the city's tight budget prevented hiring any more than six full-time firefighters.
The proposed 12 full-time employees would allow the city and the surrounding 480 square miles to have four EMS technicians and firefighters on duty 24 hours a day.
"I think the biggest benefit is a dedicated fund we can count on," Fire Chief Bob Struble said. "It allows us to plan and implement programs. It allows a greater level of service by lowering response time."
Although the city is required to spend the $1.9 million on fire and EMS service, it does not have any stipulations for the $1.3 million that is freed up in the budget when the normal support for the fire department is taken out.
Volunteer firefighter and 30-year resident Matt Newman said he supports and sees the need for an increase in funding for fire and EMS, but he wants to know where the $1.3 million extra is going.
"They are not telling the community where the money is going. They are hoping it is going to pass because it says fire and EMS," Newman said. "I know that is where we need to go, but I am not happy with the lack of information. They are trying to raise $1.9 million, which frees up $1.3 million. It is simple math."
Strong admits the city has not put any requirements or passed any ordinance on where the money will be spent annually.
He said it is intended for capital and would help the city meet its goal of spending 15 percent of its budget on capital improvements.
In 2001, the council was far below that goal, but Strong said the $1.3 million added to the $1.2 million the city has set aside for capital improvements is about 12 percent of the total budget.
It is good number for Strong, who said if additional revenue does not come in to meet capital costs, the city could start cutting services.
"It is always easier to cut capital. It works for one year, but after a number of years you have crumbling infrastructure," Strong said. "It is really hard to cut services because people notice those right away. It is politically expedient to cut capital and not services."
If the fire and EMS tax passes, Strong said the city could use the money for completing the Stone Court Connector, updating the City Clerk's record-management program and constructing sidewalks on River Road.
The tax is also a chance for the city to diversify its taxing base.
Strong said second-home owners, who account for more than half of Steamboat residents, do not pay their share of city taxes because they are in Steamboat for only a few months of the year.
"They provide sales tax one or two months out of the year, but they get services year-round," Strong said.
Through a property tax, second-home owners pay for services such as snowplowing, paving and fire and ambulance.
But the main focus of the tax is an increased level of fire protection.
Struble said that for a piece of fire equipment to leave the building, it has to be manned by four people. With the current staffing of two people on 24 hours a day, if a call is made, the full-time firefighters have to wait for two volunteers.
"If we get a fire call, we have to wait for volunteers to respond before starting. That takes three to five minutes," Struble said. "With a full-time staff of up to four, it is less than a minute. The sooner you get to the call, the better chance you have of bringing the fire under control."
Quick response time is critical, Strong said, and he points to statistics that show a fire doubles in size every minute.
Pam Bentley of Sleeping Giant Insurance said insurance premiums could also go down if response time goes up.
She said every few years, the city's fire and ambulance department is given a rating based on size of staff and equipment. The city's most recent rating was a Level 5, but Bentley said with the increase in staffing, that rating could go down to a Level 3.
And that would mean a drop in commercial insurance premiums.
Another rating would not occur for four years, but she predicts it could drop insurance premiums by $60 for every $100,000 worth of property.
"We see it as a huge benefit to our customers," Bentley said. "It benefits not only in insurance premiums, but how quickly they get to property and help sustain less damage."