In a ping-pong decision, the Steamboat Springs City Council said it would fund three additional firefighters and EMS personnel, which meant cutting $100,000 from the already approved 2004 budget.
In a nearly hourlong discussion Tuesday, the council voted 4-3 to approve three more firefighters but turned down the maximum request for six, which would have cost $200,000.
City Council President Paul Strong said he was not ready to fund six firefighters but would approve three. He asked the city to make the cuts before it approved three more firefighters, adding that he didn't want to see any money come out of the capital improvement budget.
"I am extremely reluctant to approve more spending without budget cuts," Strong said. "That is what we do in Washington; that is not what we do in local government."
Council members Kathy Connell, Steve Ivancie and Ken Brenner supported the vote. Council members Loui Antonucci, Nancy Kramer and Susan Dellinger voted against it.
Kramer urged the group to look more closely at how it was going to fund the additional service and said the decision could be part of the its overall tax policy discussion scheduled in January.
"How we go about funding that (basic) service is just as important as the service itself," Kramer said.
Dellinger voted in favor of a motion to fully fund the six firefighters and EMS personnel, but that motion failed 4-3 with Brenner and Ivancie voting with Dellinger.
City staff created a list of budget items from which money could be cut to go toward funding the fire department. In Connell's motion to fund three firefighters, it came with the stipulation that the money come from budget cuts on the list.
Staff recommended decreasing employee benefits in health insurance, eliminating the general employee wellness benefit and reducing pay-for-performance. Cuts also were recommended for supporting the Soap Box Derby and the Community Youth Corps, reducing the City Page, which runs in the Steamboat Today, by 50 percent and eliminating the Yellow Line Bus Service.
"I hate this list," City Manager Paul Hughes said. "This list represents significant and harmful changes to the budget."
The list was given to the council just before the discussion on the fire and EMS funding, and council agreed it was not ready to make a decision on what should be slashed on that list.
"I am sure all of us hate this list just as much as you do," Brenner said. "But there should be a prioritization on essential services, and certainly EMS and fire services are right at the top of that list."
The Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District, which shares the cost of firefighters with the city, wanted to hear what kind of commitment the city was willing to make Tuesday. The district has to set their budget by Friday, which determines its mill levy.
On Monday, the district board voted to pay its share for the six additional firefighters, but it would not budget that amount unless the city agreed to do the same.
District board President Bob Kuusinen said that by adding six firefighters to the existing six, the fire station could have four firefighters, who are also trained EMS personnel, on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
"The only way to do that is to add six firefighters," Kuusinen said. "You talk about your basic services; this is a basic service that is not being provided. But how long can we go without providing this basic service to the community?"
Before a fire truck leaves a station, four firefighters have to be on it, said Fire Chief Bob Struble. Without full-time staff on duty, when a call comes into the station, firefighters have to wait for volunteers to arrive, he said. That increases the time it takes for a fire truck to leave the station from less than a minute to as much as seven to eight minutes.
Hughes suggested the city look at consolidating with the Fire Protection District, which could occur as early as May. Under consolidation, the city would have a mill levy similar to the district.
But Brenner said that meant asking voters to approve a mill levy for a fire tax a third time in less than three years.
"It think that would be suicide in this community right now," Brenner said.
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