After a drought-like winter, Colorado fire departments are strategizing for an active fire season this year. At the same time, these departments are facing a budget-reducing force, dormant the past several years, that is now impacting their capabilities. The Colorado Constitution's Gallagher Amendment compelled many local fire departments statewide to reduce their budgets in 2018. They will face cuts again in 2020, and possibly again beyond that, yet the fire risk grows.
The purpose of the 1982 amendment was to balance residential and nonresidential tax revenue by floating residential assessed values. However, the subsequent 1992 TABOR amendment restricted the float to a downward direction only and now by 2020, this one-way formula will have caused the taxable (assessed) portion of residential property to plunge 25 percent in four years, (75 percent overall since 1982) creating significant budget strain amongst fire districts, including most in El Paso County. Fire departments that are experiencing growth within their service areas will have some offset of this drop, but these departments are in the minority. The escalating impact of the amendment will greatly increase the risk to our communities.
Nearly all fire districts that rely on property taxes as their primary revenue source, which is the majority in the state, will be forced to increase levies and fees to the community, postpone capital projects that provide safe working environments and equipment, see increased emergency response times and reduced numbers of responders, or worst case scenario, close doors completely. Local fire chiefs see these as unfortunate but inevitable outcomes especially if the residential assessment rate continues its precipitous fall.
Those departments whose areas are experiencing growth might be able to limit the amendment's impact, but will not be able to expand services proportional to their area's growth. Other county fire departments that have little to no growth in their areas will experience dramatic revenue drops greatly affecting their ability to provide services.
In addition to their reductions in service, you may see significant cutbacks in mutual aid, which is a department's ability to assist neighboring fire departments during large or simultaneous incidents. Departments, especially during high fire-risk days, may limit their assistance to neighbors, locally and regionally, for fear there will be no resources available to cover their own areas. No fire department in the state can do it alone. This past week, nearly every fire department within El Paso County assisted the Hanover Fire District with the 117 fire that covered nearly 43,000 acres and destroyed 23 homes. On the first day of the fire, already there was nowhere near enough resources available in quantity or rapid response to make an aggressive attack on the fire.
Are you concerned about your fire department's ability to respond? What can the community do?
First, contact your legislators. Fire districts are one of the few local governments limited by statute in raising money. The Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association, with limited success, has been pushing state legislators to enact an extension of the residential assessment, scheduled for reassessment in 2019, to 2021 to allow time for statewide discussion on permanent solutions.
Second, ask your county commissioners to approve impact fees on residential builders. The more homes built in the state, the greater the impact of the amendment. Whatever revenue increase districts may experience in the quantity of homes built is reduced by the lower taxable value of that property. Third, be understanding about increased fees. Most Colorado fire departments are short of resources and funding and yet there is no shortage of warnings of how our risk from fire is increasing.
The experiences of Waldo Canyon, Black Forest and the 117 fire show we are vulnerable. We need your help to support those organizations responsible for protecting you.
Chris Truty is the fire chief for the Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District. He also chairs the Pikes Peak Fire Chiefs' Council Mutual Aid committee and the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Operations committee, which are responsible for establishing plans for local and regional coordination of fire department operations. He has his master's degree in organizational leadership and emergency management and sits on the emergency management committee for the International Association of Fire Chiefs.