Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times
Flames explode behind a home Tuesday afternoon at the Ranch at Roaring Fork along Colorado Highway 82 in Carbondale. Disastrous fires also have struck southeast Colorado this week. Voters in rural areas around Steamboat Springs will decide in a mail-in vote, ending May 6, whether to increase property taxes to expand services of the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District.
Steamboat Springs Residents of the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District will vote on a property tax increase for emergency services and elect members to the district's board of directors in a mail-in, May 6 election.
Without the increased revenue, district officials say they no longer will be able to provide the current level of fire and ambulance service in as few as two years.
"We've been trying to put this off as long as we can," board president Steve Hilley said. "But if we don't do something, we're pretty much going to be in the red come 2010."
Ballots will be mailed to the district's roughly 3,000 eligible voters Monday and must be postmarked by May 6. This will be the first mail-in election for the fire district, as is now required by state statute, spokeswoman Karen Goedert said.
In addition to the mill levy, residents also will have the opportunity to approve three candidates for seats on the board. Newcomers Kathy Connell and James Ficke are running for election, as well as Scott Havener, who has served on the fire district's governing body since January 2007.
Hilley described the 470-square-mile Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District as a "doughnut" around the city of Steamboat Springs. The boundaries of the district are roughly one mile west of Milner, south of town just past Catamount, and approximately halfway to Clark, he said.
The district's funding currently is maxed out at just less than 6 mills. The ballot question would allow the board to increase taxes to just below 9 mills, though Hilley said the board aims to be fiscally responsible and intends to increase taxes gradually within that limit as needed.
In a Hill Research Consultants telephone survey conducted in October, respondents indicated they preferred to maintain current levels of service under mutual cooperation between the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District and the city rather than create a new, independent fire district at a higher cost.
"We're hoping for a new fire station, we're hoping for more firefighters, we're hoping for better response times - but that all takes money," Hilley said.
The Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District aims to build a station west of Steamboat Springs city limits in the future - and fill it with full-time staff. Although the proposal still is in the planning stages, the district is eyeing the Steamboat 700 development as a location, Hilley said.
According to an intergovernmental agreement adopted in 2001, the city provides fire service to the fire protection district through Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue, and the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District provides ambulance service. The city funds 70 percent of operations through sales tax, and the fire protection district contributes the rest, which comes from property taxes and ambulance user fees.
While 54 percent of respondents in the phone survey said they favored a $514,000 property tax increase to maintain existing service, only 21 percent said they would fund a $1.4 million tax increase to create an independent district with expanded services, improved fire and EMS response times and a larger budget.
The idea of developing a new taxing entity to provide fire and ambulance services has been under discussion by the city and its emergency services since June. The move was suggested by a consulting group brought in to make recommendations on the joint funding agreement between the city and the district and also to make suggestions on how to provide more equitable service between residents who live inside and outside of city limits.
"If we don't pass this spring, you can bet we'll be back in the fall," Hilley said. "We don't have any choice."