Rural fire district levy OK'd

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— Voters narrowly approved a property tax increase for the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District in a recent mail-in election, allowing the district to maintain its levels of service despite increasing costs.

According to preliminary results, 281 district residents voted to increase their property taxes, edging the 261 who voted against the proposal. The final results will be certified later this week, as provisional ballots can be counted through Wednesday, fire district spokeswoman Karen Goedert said.

"We knew it was going to be close the way the economy is. Nobody wants their taxes to go up. But because it's for vital services, people had to vote for it," outgoing fire district board President Steve Hilley said. Hilley is the only term-limited member to depart from the district's governing body this year.

Newcomers Kathy Connell and James Ficke were elected to four-year terms on the fire district board, as was returning board member Scott Havener, who has served on the board since January 2007.

Ficke, a retired U.S. Forest Service firefighter, said he is excited to work with the fire district in its upcoming period of growth and transition, particularly as the area faces fire dangers from the bark beetle epidemic and the fuel it has created.

"We have some real fire threats, that's for sure," Ficke said. "And it's all around Steamboat Springs, as well."

The 470-square-mile Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District forms a doughnut around Steamboat. The boundaries of the district roughly are one mile west of Milner, south of town just past Catamount and about halfway to Clark. Ballots were mailed in April to the 3,000 eligible voters who live within its boundaries.

The district shares borders with the Oak Creek, West Routt and North Routt fire protection districts, as well as the jurisdiction of Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue.

Voter approval of the ballot question allows the fire district board to increase taxes to just less than 9 mills. The district's funding is maxed out at its current level of just less than 6 mills, according to fire district officials.

"If nobody would've voted on the tax increase, we would've gone back to the voters in November. Or we would've been broke," Hilley said. "The options - if we didn't win the mill levy increase - they wouldn't have been good."

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.

The fire district had its last mill levy increase in 2000. And as the years have gone by, costs have only gone up, Hilley said.

"We can't live forever on the same funds. Eventually, the lines are going to cross," Hilley said. "We were going to be in the red by 2010."

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