El Paso County commissioners are considering allowing local fire protection districts to charge builders fees that fire officials say are needed to keep up with the rising number of emergency calls that come with new homes and businesses.
The proposal would enable the county's 20 fire districts to ask commissioners' permission to collect the fees. If the measure passes, commissioners would then need to approve fees proposed by individual districts.
Initial reports show fire districts could be asking builders to pay a wide range of fees, from several hundred to a few thousand dollars on each new home.
Builders and developers are concerned the fees, which would be passed on to customers, could "price out" some buyers.
Last year, the Colorado Legislature passed a law allowing fire protection districts, with the consent of the city or county governments they serve, to charge impact fees similar to those builders pay to water or school districts to offset the effects new development will have on an area's existing infrastructure. The law requires that money collected through the fee be spent on new equipment or infrastructure to accommodate community growth; it cannot be used to replace old assets or upgrade existing gear and facilities.
Unlike the Colorado Springs Fire Department, which is a city entity, fire protection districts are independent from local governments. While the majority of the department's budget comes from the city's general fund, the districts are primarily financed by property taxes.
At a work session on Tuesday, chiefs from Tri-Lakes Monument, Hanover, Security and Falcon fire protection districts pleaded their cases to commissioners.
"What we are trying to do is continue to provide the same high level of service in a community and somehow adapt to the growth that's going on," said Tri-Lakes Monument Fire District Chief Chris Truty.
Under the county proposal, each district would have to provide a study that proposes an impact fee, describes how the proposed fee was calculated, and specifies what types of development, such as residential or commercial, the fee would apply to.
The Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District, which serves about 68 square miles and responds to roughly 2,000 calls per year, is one of the few fire districts in the county that has already paid a consulting firm to conduct a study. The report suggests charging builders $777 for each new single-family home and $0.24 per square foot of commercial development. The study attempted to determine what it costs the districts to serve each home and business. Truty said the district paid Denver-based BBC Researching & Consulting about $10,000 to prepare the study, which was presented to commissioners at the work session.
In a draft of another study, the consulting firm uses the same methodology to calculate proposed fees for Hanover Fire Protection District, with drastically different results: about $3,330 per home and roughly $2.30 per square foot of commercial development. The amounts are higher because the Hanover Fire Protection District, which serves about 320 square miles in El Paso County and responds to about 400 service calls annually, has relatively few commercial and residential properties, but requires a comparatively large amount of equipment and fire stations because the properties are so spread out.
Security Fire Protection District Chief Dave Girardin said the district's response times have doubled, from about 3 to 5 minutes to roughly 8 to 10 minutes, since residents began moving into the new Lorson Ranch subdivision near Marksheffel Road and Fountain Boulevard.
"It comes down to the dollar," said Girardin. "This would help us get our response times back down to where they should be by building a new station."
The fire chiefs said that raising taxes isn't the right solution to the problems that come with growth. Increasing a district's mill levy, which would generate more property tax revenue, is a yearslong process that requires voter approval. It would also be unfair to existing residents, who would have to foot the bill for the costs associated with newcomers, they said.
Builders recognize that new development places demands on local fire districts, said Marla Novak, director of government affairs for the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs. "We just want that fee to be equitable," Novak said. "We want to know that homeowners who are still able to afford that home with that fee added will be able to see the benefits of it."
Chief Truty was only aware of one fire protection district in Colorado, Elizabeth Fire Rescue, that has begun charging an impact fee under the legislation passed last year.
Other fire districts across the state have proposed or are considering proposing a fee. Some districts began charging fees long before the law passed, leading to years of "legal debate" over whether the entities had the right to do so, Truty said.
The Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District charged builders $700 per new home for nearly a decade, but stopped collecting the fee in 2015 when a records review revealed that the fire district didn't take the proper steps, including getting county commissioners' approval. In October, the district began collecting $777 per home on new development in Monument after getting the green light from the town's board of directors, Truty said.
Commissioners could vote on the proposal as early as May 30, said Senior Assistant County Attorney Lori Seago. The vote will follow a hearing at one of commissioners' regular meetings, which take place on Tuesday and Thursday.