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September 23, 2012
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Lake Dillon fire officials: additional funds needed to stay sharp

SILVERTHORNE - If Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue's operating budget shows anything, it's that revenues have plummeted as expenses continue to grow.

To help cover the difference, fire officials will ask voters to approve a .75-mill property tax increase, which would generate an additional $550,000 for the district annually.

It's money they say they need now to continue offering current levels of service.

"It's needed now for the continuing operation of Lake Dillon Fire," spokesman Steve Lipsher said. "It's not a pie in the sky thing. It's to address today's needs."

Capital expenses, and, to a lesser extent training, are the first line items on the chopping block as the district attempts to balance the budget. Officials say without the tax increase they may have to hold off replacing an aging fire engine.

Lake Dillon's budget is approximately $7 million. The initial post-recession decline in property valuations cost the district $1.2 million this year. Another 5 percent drop is expected to gut the budget by another $555,000 in 2014.

But emergency calls have remained fairly constant, dropping off only slightly following last year's mild winter, officials reported.

"Our call load isn't sensitive to the economy," Lake Dillon fire chief Dave Parmley said. "Just because the economy has been down doesn't mean that our calls for service have decreased."

The department's expenses, on the other hand, have continued to grow.

Despite a pay-raise freeze on all employees, the department's spending climbed from $6.9 million in 2009 to nearly $7.1 million in 2012.

Officials attribute the increase to unavoidable expenses; including rising fuel prices, employee insurance premiums, maintenance needs on aging buildings and utility costs for increasingly inefficient facilities.

"We don't have a choice on any of that," deputy chief Jeff Berino said. "We've held salaries, but everything else is still going up."

Even freezing salaries is concerning for a fire department trying to remain competitive in a high-risk environment, the chief said. Without the ability to pay a competitive salary, Lake Dillon risks loosing well-trained and talented personnel to higher-paying districts.

The mill levy increase, if approved, is expected to generate approximately $550,000, essentially padding the district's budget from the next revenue reduction, which will take effect in 2014.

For taxpayers, the three-quarter mill increase equals $5.71 per $100,000 in property value. Property owners within the Lake Dillon Fire District are currently paying close to $65 per $100,000 in property value.

The department is preparing 2013 budgets for two scenarios: voters approving the tax hike proposal, or shutting it down. Without the extra revenue, information technology, capital and training budgets are likely to be the first to take hits.

"We will be postponing some select capital improvements, such as the replacement of our second engine," Parmley said. The engine is aging and officials had hoped to buy a new one before it became risky to send the vehicle out on calls.

If the ballot measure does not pass, it is unclear how visible the district's cuts will be to the general public, but firefighters' jobs don't appear to be on the line yet.

"In terms of our response capacity positions, that is something we don't want to have to entertain," Parmley said. "That would certainly be an action of very last resort, but we're not at that point."

Officials for Lake Dillon, currently an all-career department, are not considering taking on volunteers to help alleviate costs.

It is difficult for the department to retain volunteer firefighters after training them, and because volunteers also have jobs, their response time to emergency calls tend to be higher, according to Parmley and Berino.

The district has discussed the tax question at local homeowners association and town council meetings, but has not encountered a strong opposition to the measure yet.

"This is a tax which will be served locally," board president Jerry "Doc" Peterson said. "We're not shipping those dollars out to Washington to give it to some foreign dictator. This is for our district, Lake Dillon Fire District, to work here and to stay here and to serve the taxpayers and the population here."


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The Summit Daily Updated Sep 24, 2012 02:58PM Published Sep 23, 2012 11:19PM Copyright 2012 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.