With proposed tax, Summit Fire officials seek to expand wildfire preparedness and add a facility in the northern part of the county
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct that the proposed Silverthorne facility is south of the water treatment plant.
Residents within the Summit Fire & EMS Fire Protection District will vote on whether to increase their property taxes to provide additional funding to the organization next year.
Known as Ballot Issue 6A, the measure would increase the district’s existing property tax by 4 mills, from 9 to 13 mills. According to Summit Fire’s factual summary of the measure, the change would result in an annual revenue increase of about $4.5 million.
If approved, the change would mean property owners would pay an additional $28.80 for every $100,000 in assessed valuation of their residence per year. For example, for a homeowner whose property is valued at $250,000, the tax would increase from $162 to $234, a difference of $72 annually. For a property valued at $500,000, the tax would increase from $342 to $468, a difference of $144.
Summit Fire Chief Travis Davis said the district has been able to get by with 9 mills without too much difficulty over the past several years, but additional costs associated with the recent consolidation of the Summit County Ambulance Service have created new financial difficulties. Summit Fire does get funding through the county to support ambulance services as part of the 2014 voter-approved Safety First tax. But the tax sunsets at the end of 2022, which is expected to cause a revenue shortfall of about $2.3 million in 2023.
“The sole premise behind this ballot measure is truly the inclusion of the former Summit County Ambulance,” Davis said. “… It’s been almost a decade since we asked for a mill levy increase. … If it weren’t for the inclusion of (emergency medical service) transport operations and the cost of running that expanded businesses, we wouldn’t (be asking for an increase). We were able to sustain off 9 mills for a long time, but we just can’t continue to operate on that with the cost of EMS.”
For reference, Summit Fire’s 2021 budget estimates the organization will spend well over $4 million on EMS operations this year, and Davis said the district is budgeting about $4.5 million on the operations for 2022.
The district will also lose a considerable amount of revenue due to its decision to limit out-of-county ambulance transports, which served as the former ambulance service’s key revenue stream. The TABOR notice for the ballot issue lists that decision as one of the main arguments against supporting the measure.
The document reads: “It is … hard to understand why taxpayers should fill in for decreased out-of-county transport revenue when the decrease is because the district chose to no longer provide this service, giving up the revenue while increasing expenses by adding an ambulance to provide a narrower scope of services.”
When asked if the decision to limit such transports was a misstep, Davis said the organization didn’t have any regrets. He said the move was motivated in part for financial reasons, noting that the transports alone weren’t enough to support the former ambulance service, therefore necessitating the Safety First tax. He said the decision was also made to ensure the district was able to maintain coverage in Summit County and to keep its employees safe.
“We looked at the issue, and what we found was in order for us to stay flush … knowing that the call volumes are going up (and) knowing that the population was increasing, we would have had to put another $5 million into the former ambulance operation to make it whole,” Davis said. “… Fast forward to today, with everything that’s happening with COVID and with all the influx of population, we would have been behind again four years later. …
“That’s the numbers. We’re not even talking about safety issues. We’re not talking about living on borrowed time when you’ve got people making their fourth trip to Denver on a 48-hour shift in a blizzard snowstorm. The numbers are what they are.”
Other arguments the TABOR notice makes against the ballot issue include that it doesn’t commit the new funds to any particular activity or require the district to place new equipment or personnel north of Interstate 70 to better serve Silverthorne and the northern portion of the county.
Davis said the additional $4.5 million would essentially cover the costs of the district’s emergency medical services and allow the organization to focus more efforts in two main areas: wildfire preparedness and mitigation, and expanding its presence on the north end of the county.
If voters choose to approve the tax increase, Davis said the district would add funds to its 2022 capital budget for design work on a facility in Silverthorne, south of the water treatment facility off Colorado Highway 9. As of today, district leadership feels that there isn’t enough call volume on the north end of the county to justify a full response station, which Davis estimated would cost about $10 million to construct in addition to $2 million annually to staff it.
Instead, Summit Fire spokesperson Steve Lipsher said the facility would serve as a smaller outpost, with a couple of engine bays and day quarters for a crew so that emergency workers would be able to more quickly respond to calls in the area.
“Basically, it would be something that we could expand as demand increases and as the justification for it increases,” Lipsher said. “It would be designed with expansion in mind.”
The TABOR notice’s arguments in favor of the ballot issue note a significant increase in call volume over recent years — a 22% jump between 2019 and 2020 — and that the additional revenue is “needed to support highly trained personnel, buildings and up-to-date equipment to provide for the needs of the community.”
Earlier this month, the Summit Board of County Commissioners approved a resolution in support of the measure, which read in part that “there is a critical need to increase the fire district’s property tax revenues to enable the fire district to meet the community’s increasing demands for emergency services.”
Summit Fire provides all-hazards emergency response services to Dillon, Frisco, Silverthorne, Montezuma, Copper Mountain and other unincorporated areas of Summit County. Individuals who own property within the district but are not registered to vote in Summit County can still voice their opinions on the matter as long as they are registered voters in Colorado. In order to receive a ballot, eligible voters must complete a self-affirming oath or affirmation that they are an elector in the district and send it to the Summit County clerk and recorder.
The self-affirming oath or affirmation of elector was mailed to all eligible voters not registered within the district, and those needing a replacement can contact Summit Fire’s Designated Election Official Mary Hartley at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 970-262-5100, ext. 120.
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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