City, fire district to talk consolidation

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— Consolidation will be the focus of tonight's meeting between the Steamboat Springs City Council and the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District.

With an intergovernmental agreement between the city and the fire district for shared fire and emergency medical services, consolidation would put the two entities on equal financial footing.

The fire district is funded through a property tax and funding from the city comes primarily from sales tax revenue.

"Just by consolidating, the funding is by one source and prevents one entity from being unable to fund part of the deal," fire district president Bob Kuusinen said.

If a consolidation were to occur, both the city and fire district would most likely fund their shares through property taxes, City Manager Paul Hughes said.

After a city-proposed fire tax failed for a second time in 2003, making the city unable to fund its side of a 2000 agreement, the two entities agreed the next step was to look at consolidating, Hughes said.

The major concern is the city's inability to fully fund 12 firefighters and EMS personnel. The city has been able to fund six fire fighters and EMS personnel, but has said it cannot fund the full 12.

At last Tuesday's meeting, the council approved hiring three additional firefighters, which necessitates cutting from the already-approved 2004 budget. The number is still three short of what the fire district and city had agreed to when the intergovernmental agreement was signed in December 2000.

Even though the city budgeted for three fewer firefighters than what the district wanted, Kuusinen said it is a step in the right direction.

"We have stuck to the number of six for a number of years, to get part way to a full staff is a wise shift," Kuusinen said.

Talks between the two entities have already indicated that, if consolidation were to occur, the representation on the consolidated board would be based on population, meaning the city would have the majority of board members, Hughes said.

If the city had decided to fully fund the agreed-upon level of fire and EMS services through sales tax revenue, the decision to consolidate would be mute, Hughes said.

But Hughes also said that many people believe a property tax -- rather than sales tax -- is the fairest and most progressive way to pay for fire and ambulance services because such services primarily relate to property.

Later in tonight's City Council meeting, the council will look at where to cut from the already approved 2004 budget to fund the three additional fire fighters it approved Tuesday.

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