Summit Fire & EMS to place property tax increase on November ballot
The measure is meant to help the district offset revenue losses from an expiring Summit County tax
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove incorrect information about how the mill levy increase would impact property owners and to correct details on interfacility ambulance transports outside the county.
Summit Fire & EMS will ask taxpayers within the fire protection district to vote on a property tax increase in the upcoming November election that is meant to help shield the district’s finances against the sunset of the “Safety First” tax approved by voters in 2014 and the loss of ambulance transfer service revenue.
On Election Day, residents in the district will be tasked with deciding whether to increase the district’s existing property tax mill levy by 4 mills, from 9 to 13 mills. According to Summit Fire’s factual summary of the measure, the move would increase tax revenue for the district by a little more than $4.5 million annually.
“We realize that this is a pretty significant ask, but we hope the citizenry understands that this is a very responsible organization,” Summit Fire Chief Travis Davis said. “It’s not like us to ask for something we don’t need having been nine years, coming up on 10, since the last time we asked for any tax increase.”
Ballot questions are no novelty for residents in the district, which provides all-hazards emergency response to about 480 square miles in Dillon, Frisco, Silverthorne, Copper Mountain, Montezuma, Keystone and other unincorporated areas of Summit County.
In 2018, voters approved a revenue stabilization measure for Summit Fire and the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District, which helped to solidify budgets for the districts in the face of dropping property tax revenue as a result of the Gallagher Amendment. Gallagher was a 1982 amendment to the Colorado Constitution, which essentially capped residential property taxes at 45% of the statewide property tax base.
But Colorado residents voted to repeal the amendment during last year’s election, with homeowners choosing to forgo property tax cuts in order to help better support property-tax funded entities, such as fire districts. The decision is likely a weight off the collective shoulders of Summit Fire and similar organizations, but now the district faces another major financial hurdle: the expiration of the “Safety First” ballot measure.
In 2014, Summit County voters approved the tax increase to help fund ambulance service in the county. When Summit Fire officially absorbed the Summit County Ambulance Service, those funds were transferred into the district’s coffers. But the tax is set to expire at the end of 2022.
In total, the fire district is anticipating a 2023 revenue shortfall of $5 million or more in large part due to the loss of about $2.3 million in Safety First funds, according to a resolution on the 2021 ballot measure passed by the district’s board of directors in July.
The resolution also noted about $2.5 million in revenue reductions as a result of recent efforts to limit the number of out-of-county ambulance transports. Summit Fire Chief Travis Davis said that before its merger with Summit Fire, the Summit County Ambulance Service’s main revenue stream was taking patients from Summit County via ambulance to out-of-county hospitals.
Following the merger, Summit Fire made the decision to scale back the service to focus on in-county responses. Stadium Medical is currently contracted to provide interfacility transports out of the county. Davis said the move was made in an effort to keep the agency’s medical resources in the county for safety reasons — ambulances would often be unavailable for hours at a time while transporting patients — among other reasons.
According to Summit Fire’s 2021 budget, the district is estimated to take in about $16.5 million in revenue this year, more than $10 million of which comes from property taxes. The budget estimates about $11.3 million in expenditures for 2021, leaving an estimated $5.3 million in operational reserves for the year and a reserve total of about $8.2 million. Davis said the district is required by law to keep an emergency reserve of at least 3% of the operating budget — about $321,000 this year — and the majority of the operational reserves are used to fund operations during the start of the year before property tax revenue begins rolling in.
The district’s call volume continues to grow, as well. According to Summit Fire’s 2020 Annual Report, the district responded to 4,153 calls for assistance last year, including 54 fires and more than 2,500 emergency medical responses. In 2019, the district responded to 3,402 calls for assistance, a 22% increase. The numbers generally continue to dip the farther back reports go: from 2,992 calls in 2018 to 2,475 calls in 2017 to 2,399 calls in 2016.
The growth in calls is in large part due to the growth of the organization itself. In 2012, the last time the district increased its mill levy, there were 55 employees. The organization now has about 115 employees, according to the 2020 Annual Report.
“We were running at 9 mills when we consolidated with Copper Mountain Fire and Summit County Ambulance,” Davis said. “… Bringing those two organizations into the fold with Summit Fire & EMS, we doubled in size. We’re not going to the taxpayers and asking for another 9 mills. We’re asking for less than half of that.”
If approved, the district would be allowed to use the funds in a variety of ways, including for wildland firefighting, capital improvements, personnel, fire and emergency medical services, ambulance transports or other administration and operational expenses.
The factual summary attached to the ballot measure lists a number of arguments for and against the proposal. It notes that a tax increase might clash with individuals who support smaller government entities, especially those who don’t support some or all of the proposed uses for the funds. Arguments for the proposal note that the money would help the district keep up with increasing demand for service, a growing population and inflation. The summary also notes that if the district is forced to reduce services to compensate for lost revenue, it could adversely affect the district’s ratings with its insurance services office, which could in turn cause property insurance rates to increase for local homeowners and businesses.
Shall Summit Fire & EMS fire protection district taxes be increased $4,555,293 (first full fiscal year dollar increase) annually, beginning in levy year 2021 (for collection in calendar year 2022) by increasing the district’s existing property tax by 4.000 mills to a total of 13.000 mills, subject to the revenue stabilization adjustments approved by the district’s voters at the Nov. 6, 2018, general election, to be used for wildland firefighting, capital improvements, personnel, fire and emergency medical services, ambulance transport, and all other administrative and operational expenses, and shall all revenue and any earnings on the total property tax constitute a permanent voter-approved revenue change within the meaning of Article X, Section 20 of the Colorado Constitution and an exception to the limitations set forth in Section 29-1-301 of the Colorado Revised Statutes, and any other law?
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