Our View: Seeking clarity about consolidation
December 15, 2010
Steamboat Springs — Steamboat Springs might be facing a familiar ballot question soon.
The board of the Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District has renewed efforts to consolidate rural Steamboat fire rescue services with the city of Steamboat Springs. The group is discussing a ballot measure that would create a city property tax to help fund fire services. Proponents of the measure say they want to make it so the measure does not collect any more taxes than are collected now, which would mean reducing or eliminating other taxes to offset the property tax.
The fire protection district is funded by a property tax on its residents, who live in a doughnut-shaped area around Steamboat. The city's fire and emergency services are funded by the general fund through city sales tax revenues, and the same equipment, staff and infrastructure serve the city and area fire districts. Consolidation would eliminate the reliance on sales-tax income in the city and shift emergency service funding to a property tax.
We're not ready to support or oppose consolidation, particularly because the proponents haven't crafted ballot language yet. However, we do have some questions we hope are publicly addressed.
First, city voters rejected property tax proposals for fire and emergency services in 2002 and 2003. We'd like to know why this ballot measure would be different, particularly because it appears that funding levels have been appropriate for fire and emergency services.
Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue Chief Ron Lindroth said the funding situation changes when long-term projects are taken into consideration. He noted that Steamboat Fire Rescue, which serves the city and the Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District, did get adequate funding for 2011. That amounted to $3 million: about $2 million from the city and about $1 million from the fire district. But the agency will need additional funding to maintain its fleet and to build a needed training facility, Lindroth said. The area fire district chipped in money for three fire trucks this year, and the city approved capital improvements funding for an engine next year.
"But ongoing funding has not been identified," Lindroth said.
It's also true that fire services are strapped if they receive multiple calls at once, Lindroth said. For example, crews were delayed getting to the Rabbit Ears Motel fire during summer because of other calls.
A second concern, also related to the timing issue, is the recent creation of a new Tax Policy Advisory Board. The Steamboat Springs City Council tasked that group with examining Steamboat's tax policy to see whether changes are needed.
Representatives from that group say they could have results by the end of 2011, but the fire district has said a city vote on consolidation could take place in spring or summer. Kathy Connell, who is president of the rural fire district's board of directors and leading the consolidation effort, said the current system is inefficient and there's no reason to wait.
"It's been developing, and one of the things that we wanted to do is have it be an issue that wasn't a part of other politics," she said, indicating that they'd rather put the issues to voters outside of the traditional November cycle.
Third, we hope the proponents of the ballot measure explain the benefits of consolidation in detail. Connell said a key benefit is creating efficiencies with fire and emergency services. Under the current system, the fire district board and the City Council must agree on shared capital purchases, for example. Connell said the process would be streamlined if only one board were in charge of the entire district.
Connell noted that there would not necessarily be a change to staffing levels at Steamboat Fire Rescue.
Finally, the district has suggested that a property tax proposal could come with cuts to other city taxes and fees in hopes of implementing a revenue-neutral change. Connell said proponents of the measure want to cut taxes and fees that go into the city's general fund in an amount equal to what it costs to fund fire and emergency services. She said that also could increase second-home owners' share of fire and emergency service costs.
Lindroth noted that not all second-home owners pay sales taxes equal to the cost of fire and emergency protection for their homes.
"It makes it a direct tie for the services being received, a property tax for protecting property," Lindroth said, "and I think that's where the thought process is."
Additionally, businesses often bear the brunt of property tax increases because of the Gallagher Amendment, which puts a larger portion of the burden on their shoulders than on residential property owners. Is it possible to offset that enough to make this fair to business owners in the city?
These questions might be answered by the time voters weigh in, and the fire district has planned to solicit feedback from the public and from business owners. There might very well be a need for consolidation of city fire services and the Steamboat Springs Area Fire Protection District. We just want to make sure the facts are crystal clear before a vote.