Council to send mill levy to voters

Property tax would free up capital, fund fire departments

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The City Council is preparing to ask voters to approve a 4 mill levy for fire and ambulance services in November.

It will be the second time in two years the city has asked voters to approve a property tax that would fund its fire department, but also free up money for capital improvements.

At Tuesday night's meeting, the council directed city staff to prepare the first reading of an ordinance for the ballot question.

The 4 mills would fund the city's entire fire department budget and free up $1.25 million that is now coming from the city's general fund and could be put toward capital improvements.

It is reminiscent of the proposal that failed by 250 votes last November. That proposal asked for a 5 mill levy, and would have raised $1.9 million. The tax would have added another $600,000 to the department for additional firefighters and freed up $1.3 million in the general fund.

With the city unable to add fire and ambulance staff and bring capital spending above 5 percent of the city budget, Councilman Bud Romberg said the council needed to ask for the fire tax a second time.

Learning lessons from the last election, Council President Kathy Connell said this time around they would be specific in where the freed-up money would be spent.

"I think we need to have a list of capital improvements so the citizens can see what they are getting for their tax dollars," Connell said. "(The 2002 fire tax) lost by 250 votes. I think it will pass this year if the lessons are learned from the last election. Be simple, clarification, let us know the facts."

Some council members were hesitant to go forward with a property tax. With a bad year in sales tax, businesses hurting and residents seeing a cut in their incomes, Councilman Loui Antonucci asked if this was the right time to ask for a property tax.

"If everyone is cutting back, maybe we need to look at that too," Antonucci said.

Romberg said a property tax would place a greater share of the tax burden on second home owners, who are not paying for fire and ambulance services they use now when they only contribute to sales tax revenue one or two months out of the year.

"By having a property tax, these people will have an opportunity to share in the cost of infrastructure that the city has that they are benefiting from but don't at this point (pay for)," Romberg said.

Two other scenarios were presented to the council Tuesday night:

n The city could impose a property tax of less than 1 mill to provide for the increase in fire protection services. The increased mill levy would be about $300,000 and provide for six additional positions.

n The city could have the existing Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District annex the city and take responsibility for providing fire protection services. A mill levy of about 4.8 mills would be imposed evenly throughout the district. The option also would free up about $1.25 million in the city's general fund and could be put toward capital improvements.

The council debated whether it should go with 4 or 4.8 mills. The council decided to go with 4 mills because that is what is needed now to fund the fire department and the city could still work out an agreement with the rural fire protect district.

Former City Council President Bill Martin asked the city to not put a question on the ballot that asks to fund a basic city service such as fire and ambulance. Instead, he asked the council to look at taxes for nonbasic services such as an airport authority.

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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