Summit County voters come out strong in support of fire district measures
November 12, 2018
Summit County's fire protection districts are breathing a little easier this week after the county's voters overwhelmingly chose to support new revenue stabilization measures for the departments, helping to solidify budgets for the foreseeable future and maintain levels of service in the community.
"We're gratified and blown away by the support from our community," said Steve Lipsher, public information officer with Summit Fire & EMS. "It's not something that we take for granted. We endeavor to be great stewards of the taxes they pay to us. Its important to maintain the faith they've shown in us to do a good job and to provide the services to help keep our community safe."
The Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District, along with the two districts that make up Summit Fire & EMS — the Lake Dillon Fire Protection District and the Copper Mountain Consolidated Metropolitan District — all put new measures onto the ballot this November, hoping to combat the negative financial affects of the Gallagher Amendment on their ever shrinking budgets.
Summit voters came out in strong support of the measures — which will create a floating mill levy to maintain the current residential tax rates — and chose to pass all three by considerable margins. The Red, White & Blue measure passed most convincingly, with more than 78 percent of individuals voting in favor of the issue (4,587 in favor and 1,244 against). Voters in the Lake Dillon District passed the measure with more than 72 percent of the vote (7,408 in favor and 2,849 against), and the Copper Mountain District passed their measure with over 65 percent of the vote (274 in favor and 146 against).
"It's an extremely good feeling, and I've heard that sentiment throughout the organization," said chief Jim Keating of Red, White & Blue. "Our services and the work our people do is appreciated. It sent an extremely strong message that they support us all the way. And it's a huge morale boost to our complete staff."
Earlier this year the fire districts put the measures on the ballot as a means to fight the Gallagher Amendment, and in turn years of ratcheting back the departments' respective budgets. The Gallagher Amendment divides Colorado's property tax burden between residential and nonresidential properties, and mandates that only 45 percent of the state's property taxes can stem from residential properties. In addition to the cap, the amendment mandates that the assessment rate for commercial properties be set at 29 percent, while residential assessment rates are adjusted annually to maintain the 45–55 percent split.
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In other words, when residential property values grow at a faster rate than commercial properties, homeowners are contributing more than their 45 percent share and a mandatory tax cut is triggered. When the amendment first passed in the 1980s, the residential assessment rate was set at 21 percent. That rate is now down to 7.2 percent and is expected to drop again next year. For fire districts, which receive almost all of their funding from residential property taxes, that means the continued shrinking of budgets.
The new measures will essentially implement a floating mill levy — a tax rate applied to the assessed value of a property — that the districts could raise or lower to maintain the current 7.2 percent rate. This means that if the state decides to lower residential assessment rates again the districts can now increase mill levies on properties by a commensurate rate to stabilize revenues.
According to officials at the fire districts, the consequences may have been severe if voters rejected the measures.
"Regrettably the Gallagher Amendment in conjunction with TABOR was having a downward ratcheting affect on property taxes we'd be collecting," said Lipsher. "Going into 2019 we were looking at a million dollar decrease in property tax revenues, which is 10 percent of our budget. We've already seen in previous years some diminishing returns, but this year it was really going to hit us hard. All of this is also in the context of our call volume increasing steadily. It was putting us in a real dilemma."
Lipsher said that if the measures failed to pass Summit Fire & EMS would be forced to make cuts in the department, beginning with "low hanging fruit" such as additional training in structure protections against wildfires and pushing back necessary equipment purchases to assure they can still maintain their emergency response responsibilities.
Chief Keating reciprocated Lipsher's comments, saying that the new measures will allow the department to continue educational outreach programs to schools and mitigation inspections for residents, as well as help to provide peace of mind for employees worried about layoffs in the future.
"We have a lot of young folks in our organization trying to build their families," said Keating. "It gives them peace of mind in their own financial planning. They can lay their plans moving forward knowing their positions are secure. And we can continue to support small wage changes to deal with cost of living."