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El Paso County fire districts - one growing, one shrinking - asking for tax hikes

October 29, 2017 Updated: November 3, 2017 at 10:39 am
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photo - Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District (Gazette file photo)
Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District (Gazette file photo) 

Two local fire protection districts say taxpayers need to pony up so the agencies can keep their stations running smoothly and emergency services up to par.

But the Tri-Lakes Monument and Donald Wescott fire protection districts have starkly different reasons for the request: one is serving a growing population as developments spring up in the northern part of El Paso County; the other is working with a shrinking tax base because the Colorado Springs Fire Department now serves much of the district.

Fire protection districts are primarily funded through property taxes they levy. Unlike fire departments, such as those in Fountain or Colorado Springs, the districts are independent from municipal government entities.

Both districts' chiefs acknowledged that they had faced some pushback from community members reluctant to support the measures because they would increase the burden on taxpayers.

This month, vandals defaced a sign touting Wescott's ballot issue by spray painting the word "TAX" across the banner, which was near the district's station in Gleneagle.

Donald Wescott Fire Protection District (Northern Subdistrict) Issue 5C

After much of the Wescott Fire Protection District's southern half was annexed by the city of Colorado Springs, the district wants voters' permission to triple the property taxes that homeowners in the northern subsection pay to the district to make up for revenues that will be lost due to the annexation. The measure would increase property taxes by about $107 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home.

In the early 2000s, the city annexed about 10 square miles of the district's service area south of North Gate Boulevard as residential and commercial development increased. After Colorado Springs Fire Department opened a station on Voyager Parkway last year, the city no longer needed the district's help responding to calls within the annexed area, said Wescott Fire Chief Vinny Burns. Under a two-year agreement between the agencies, the property values from the annexed areas will be transferred from the district to the city, he said.

The district's 2017 budget is about $2.2 million. Under the terms of the agreement, loss of the annexed properties will reduce that to about $1.5 million next year and $700,000 in 2019 - unless the ballot measure passes, Burns said.

While the district has decreased in size, it still serves thousands of people in neighborhoods including Gleneagle and Sun Hills, Burns said.

If the measure fails, the department will have to reduce its staff of 15 paid firefighters and three administrators to three firefighters and an assistant chief, Burns said. The district's main station, where five to six firefighters are typically on duty, would be staffed by one firefighter at a time, which would restrict the district's ability to respond to calls.

Structure fires and most medical emergencies would have to be handled by mutual aid partners, such as Colorado Springs fire and Tri-Lakes Monument and Black Forest fire protection districts, Burns said.

"The election is about keeping the firefighters employed," he said. "All we're asking is to keep what we've got."

Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District Issue 5A

The question posed by Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District would increase the property taxes homeowners pay to the fire protection district by more than 50 percent. The owner of a $100,000 home would pay about $50 more a year if the measure passes. The district, which serves about 10,000 households in the northern part of the county, says the boost will provide money to replace obsolete equipment, repair dilapidated stations, raise wages for underpaid personnel, and add a few professionals to the district's team.

The extra revenue would go toward outdated air packs, heart monitors, vehicle radio systems and a new Jaws of Life - an apparatus used to free trapped victims following car crashes and other emergencies. Most firefighter equipment must be replaced periodically, even if it is still functioning, to meet national standards, Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Chief Chris Truty said.

"We don't have enough money to make sure our equipment isn't going to fail as we go forward," Truty said. "We only go to the community when we no longer can solve the problem ourselves."

While the assessed value of properties in the district have steadily increased, from about $364 million in 2009 to about $390 million in 2017, the district's property tax revenues have only increased by about $50,000 a year - or less than 1 percent of the agency's roughly $6 million budget, Truty said.

District voters approved a tax increase in 2012.

"There's a false belief out there that the cost of running an organization will always be covered by growth," Truty said. "We're in a very fiscally conservative community. ... We're proud of our low property taxes. And that tends to dominate - more so than the quality of services that are provided."

Green Mountain Falls/Chipita Park Fire Protection District Issue 4A

A third fire protection district is going to voters with a question, although the measure would not raise taxes.

Green Mountain Falls/Chipita Park Fire Protection District is asking for permission to retain grants, gifts and other donations to help pay for the construction of a fire station. The district must get voters consent under the Colorado Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which ties increases in government revenues to inflation and population growth. The district is pursuing several grants for construction of the station that would put it over the TABOR-mandated limit, said Gary Florence, treasurer on the district's board. If the measure does not pass, the surplus would go to taxpayers via a property tax refund, he said.

Last year, the district's voters passed a bond issue that allowed the city to raise taxes and increase its debt to up to $3.5 million to pay for a new fire station. Florence said the district is unsure how much the station, which is not yet under construction, will ultimately cost taxpayers. But if the measure passes, the district hopes to offset the price to taxpayers with grants and donations that would otherwise have to be refunded.

The Gazette's Kaitlin Durbin contributed to this article. 

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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