Higher taxes or fewer firemen? Black Forest voters may need to decide

August 5, 2011

Black Forest residents could soon have to decide between paying nearly twice as much for their firefighters or losing just over half of the fire department’s paid staff.

For the first time in about 20 years, the board overseeing Black Forest Fire/Rescue plans to ask residents for a tax increase to offset a shrinking budget hit hard by the recession and shrinking revenues.

“We understand that this is a tough time and it’s a tough time for many of our citizens,” said Walter Seelye, board treasurer. “So we are asking ‘All right, what level of service do you want from us?’ There’s a cost either way.”

The board has reserved space on the November ballot for the measure, he said, though it has yet to be drafted. Once the language is finalized, the board will vote on whether to place it on the ballot.

If approved, the measure would likely raise taxes by 4.25 mills, bringing the fire department’s operational mill levy to 9.215. That would mean the owner of a $342,000 house — the median value for a home in Black Forest — would pay an extra $116 a year in taxes, said Kathy Russell, fire department spokeswoman.

The board’s plan comes as the department struggles to deal with weak property tax revenues, less income from ambulance fees and the expiration of a vital five-year federal SAFER grant that helped the department more than double the number of full-time employees.

Black Forest Fire/Rescue marks the second fire department in El Paso County to look to a tax increase because of the grant running out. Officials with the Falcon Fire Department have also reserved space on the ballot for a tax increase question, though they’ve yet to decide whether to actually bring the issue to voters.

Falcon Fire Chief Trent Harwig said officials are considering raising the current mill levy rate from 5.7 mills to 8.2 mills. Without the increase, Harwig anticipates laying off most of the six firefighters that the federal grant helped fund. Falcon currently has 27 firefighters and 35 volunteers.

Black Forest Fire/Rescue could face similar staff reductions, Russell said.
The department has been reeling from a 25 percent drop in fees it collects by providing ambulance service. It received $100,000 less than it did in 2006 from the service, Russell said.

If no new taxes are approved, Russell said the six firefighters added in 2006 would likely to be laid off in the coming year, dropping the department’s full-time staff to five. The department would rely more on its 35 volunteers.

“One way or another, this fire department will continue to answer the call,” Russell said. “We still do it; it just takes longer.”

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