Breckenridge fire district’s first contested election in years could shape future of county ambulance system
The fire district serving the Breckenridge area is holding its first contested board election in years, and the race could have implications for a long-running dispute with the county government over ambulance services that bubbled over into a public showdown nearly a year ago.
The May 8 vote will be the first contested board election for the Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District since 2012 and could shape the future of Summit County’s EMS system.
On Monday evening, the five candidates vying for three open board seats gathered at the Colorado Mountain College campus in Breckenridge for a meet and greet and public forum. The discussion touched on many aspects of the fire service, but the EMS conundrum remained a common thread.
“I think putting this issue to bed is probably the number one priority in my mind,” said candidate Brian Binge, a vice president of Breckenridge Grand Vacations. “I think there maybe just needs to be some fresh perspective and open minds in the room to help facilitate an end to this issue.”
As structure fires have become vanishingly rare, fire services across the state continue to push further into EMS, and last summer’s dispute with the county highlighted how the change can cause friction with traditional providers. Summit’s reckoning with the issue was a long time coming.
“It is a difficult problem,” said incumbent board member Ken Wiegand. “It’s not easy. If it were easy it would’ve been solved in the mid-2000s when it first came up.”
Last June, the county stripped RWB of its authority to operate ambulances after a complex dispute over the fire district’s role in Summit’s wider EMS system, which includes the Summit County Ambulance Service and Summit Fire and EMS. The county’s insistence that RWB conduct more out-of-county transports, which generate high revenue but are time-consuming and unpopular, was a central issue.
In August, the day before its ambulance privileges would’ve expired, RWB reached an interim deal with the county government that was later extended to run until July 31. In the meantime, outside consultants have been studying the county’s overall EMS system. Negotiations will resume based on their recommendations.
Incumbents Arch Gothard and Dean Lippert will be joining Wiegand and Binge on the ticket, along with Richard Ferris, a veteran of RWB from its all-volunteer days.
County manager Scott Vargo and County Commissioner Dan Gibbs were in the audience Monday night, and their presence was quickly noted.
“I had a number of objectives when I went on the board, and I still have a few I want to get done,” said Gothard, the current Board President. “One of them is working out a deal with Scott.”
Vargo, reached by phone Tuesday, said he didn’t have an estimate for when the highly anticipated study will be released.
“I was glad to see the candidate forum, and as with any other election, it’s important for folks to be aware that they’re taking place and be informed about the issues,” he said.
Last summer, the county commissioned a study concluding that RWB was contributing to a glut of ambulance units and would not see its response times hurt by doing more out-of-county runs. RWB pushed back against that study, claiming it was inaccurate and biased toward the county’s position.
There’s no indication of what the next round of consultants will conclude, and they have not prepared a first draft of their findings yet. Presumably, both parties would be beholden to their recommendations.
“It’s a really needed study,” said Lippert. “It’s always good to have a third party look at everything.”
The candidates also raised concerns over wildfires during the forum, citing the 80-acre Peak 2 Fire last summer that prompted the evacuation of hundreds of homes near Breckenridge.
Discussion also ventured into the district’s funding, which flows from property taxes within the district. Those are potentially vulnerable to real estate crashes and the state’s Gallagher Amendment, which adjusts residential property tax rates downward in response to rising home values.
Last year, the rate was ratcheted down to 7.2 percent thanks to a building boom on the Front Range, costing special districts across the state millions.
“This is a significant issue,” Ferris said. “The assessment ratio will be balanced down a little more than one percent against his year, so the $7.8 million property tax revenue that RWB currently has will probably see a decrease if the legislature doesn’t act.”
Voters will be able to drop their ballots off at the district’s main station in Breckenridge from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on May 8. Instructions for requesting absentee ballots can be found on the district’s website, http://www.rwbfire.org
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