Voters return to polls

Oak Creek race brings up

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Two years after voters in the Oak Creek Fire Protection District doubled a property tax that supports the district, they will return to the polls to choose three board members from four candidates.

The election has sparked conversations about whether it was necessary to increase the property tax to 9.9 mills, more than double the 4.4 mills it was before, and whether the new funds have been used effectively.

Voters who are unhappy with the increased tax won't find a candidate running on a platform of change, as all four contenders support the increased taxes.

All four candidates also firmly stand behind keeping the district together, despite murmurs in town from a select few that Oak Creek would fare well if it separated from Stagecoach into its own district.

The candidates running are incumbents Chris Zuschlag and Steve Jones, and new candidates Ken DePaul and Sonja Norris. Board President Gerry Greenwood and board member Bernard Knott are not up for election; board member Bill Paxton left his position.

The election is from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Oak Creek Town Hall.

Oak Creek resident Bill Babcock said he was one of "a number" of town residents disappointed by the current board's direction, including the decision to pay Fire Chief Chuck Wisecup as a full-time employee. Another concern is that Oak Creek residents could be "left in the dark" as improvements are made in Stagecoach.

Oak Creek Mayor Kathy "Cargo" Rodeman said she has heard from various business owners who are upset by the property tax increase, and she feels the doubled tax should have been created with a "sunset clause" to give voters a chance to re-examine how the funds have been used.

But Greenwood, president of the Oak Creek Fire Protection District Board, said the increased funds have helped the district meet various needs, such as employing a district chief full time and moving forward with the Stagecoach fire station.

"If you look at trying to be progressive and providing services and accountability ... it all ratchets up the expense," Greenwood said.

The 9.9-mill levy was brought to the voters after a consultant recommended that the district seek more funds and employ a full-time chief because of increased needs. Residents approved it with a 261-188 vote.

In 2001, the district received about $100,000 from the tax. When the mill levy increased in 2002, that value jumped to $240,000 and then jumped again in 2003 to $280,000 as property values increased, Routt County Assessor Amy Williams said.

Of the fire tax collected in 2003, Oak Creek residents contributed about 20 percent, Stagecoach residents contributed about 50 percent, and the remainder came from residents in outlying areas in the 265-square-mile district, Williams said.

In 2001, people paid $40 in tax for each $100,000 of residential property and $127 per $100,000 of commercial property. In 2003, those taxes jumped to $79 and $288, respectively, Williams said.

For property owners in Oak Creek and Stagecoach, the district mill levy represents about one-eighth of the total mill levy. Typically, Williams said, schools receive half of the total mill levy, the county receives one-quarter, towns receive 1 percent, libraries receive 4 percent, Colorado Mountain College receives 6 percent and special districts, such as the Oak Creek Fire Protection District, receive 9 percent.

The increased funding has allowed for multiple improvements, according to a report recently released by the Oak Creek Fire Protection District.

One is planning for a fire station in Stagecoach. The first phase of the project is scheduled to begin this spring and is estimated to cost about $514,000, Wisecup said. Donated labor should lower that cost to $270,000.

The funds also have allowed the district to buy a new ambulance and a command vehicle, and to hire Wisecup as a full-time chief for about $54,500 a year, including benefits and other payroll expenses.

Wisecup manages the district's 35 volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians, meets with federal, state and local officials on issues such as wildland fire danger, and has helped develop policies with the county, the report stated.

He has helped firefighters get more training and certifications than they have had in the past. For instance, 11 firefighters have completed Firefighter I certification, but none had completed the course before Wisecup was hired, the report stated. Wisecup also has secured about $150,000 in grants for the district.

That paid position is important to ensure steady service, Greenwood said.

"In the society we live in, volunteerism is becoming more and more difficult to depend on," Greenwood said.

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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