Our View: City has bigger fire issues to extinguish
February 28, 2012
Feb. 14, 2012: Steamboat City Council approves firefighter schedule change
Jan. 2, 2012: Steamboat City Council hears report on fire services
The Steamboat Springs City Council's commitment to solving a complex web of fire and ambulance-service related issues in 2012 got off to an appropriate, albeit small, start with the approval of reduced fire department staffing during off-season months.
While the staffing move is expected to save only $37,000 in overtime costs this year — Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue has a total payroll of $1.2 million, not including $260,000 in budgeted overtime — the change sends the appropriate message that efficiencies can be realized in emergency services.
But the council's real work lies ahead.
Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue provides fire and ambulance service for the city of Steamboat Springs, but also for the Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District, which extends beyond the boundaries of the city to include bordering areas like Steamboat II, Heritage Park, Silver Spur, Tree Haus, Dakota Ridge, Catamount Ranch & Club, Alpine Mountain Ranch, Elk River Estates and other nearby residential and rural areas. Property owners in the rural fire protection district pay a property tax for those services. There is no city of Steamboat Springs property tax, meaning the fire department is funded within city limits like most other city departments — with revenues from the general sales tax.
The city and the rural fire protection district have discussed whether to consolidate fire services into a single property tax-supported fire district, but that plan was scrapped. A third-party consultant hired by the city to examine the operation of the fire department recommended a similar structure, including a new property tax to support it.
The city also has considered whether to hand over operation of Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue to the rural fire protection district and reimburse it for services provided within city limits, but city officials said such a move would increase costs.
City Council President Bart Konouvsky has challenged the city and the rural fire district to figure out their governance issues by June.
The report from consultant International City/County Management Association identified annual savings of $252,000 through steps such as privatization of ambulance services, reduced staffing levels, revised shift schedules, reduced overtime expenses, using part-time firefighters and increasing funding from property taxes while maintaining city funding at existing levels.
Fire Rescue officials and others have rejected many of the consultant's proposals and issued a report of their own that included the provision for reduced staffing during off-season months that was approved by the council this month. We think going from shifts of eight full-time firefighters to seven during April, May, October and November makes sense, and we haven't seen anything that indicates such a move would jeopardize public safety.
It's the macro issues that will be harder to resolve, starting with the overall governance of fire and ambulance services in Steamboat and the immediate surrounding areas. The cost for fire and emergency services ought to be managed and scrutinized as closely as the city has dealt with other departments and budget line items. There is little question that additional opportunities for cost savings and/or departmental efficiencies exist within Fire Rescue. The city has taken a small step with its staff adjustments. We believe there are bigger strides to make that won't sacrifice the safety of residents or visitors.