April 15, 2014 Updated: April 15, 2014 at 8:31 am
DENVER - Colorado lawmakers are gearing up for the 2014 fire season, prepping to spend millions on a new firefighting air fleet, tax incentives for fire mitigation and an improved statewide fire information website.
Chairs of the state's wildfire and flood task forces say lawmakers have made natural disaster-related legislation a priority in the 2014 state budget.
A number of bills to help those affected by floods and fires - including generous property tax breaks for those who lost their homes - are expected to move through the Legislature with little opposition.
"If you were to look at the flood bills and the fire bills, those were priority bills that found space in the budget," said Rep. Dave Young, a Democrat from Greeley who chaired the state flood committee. "Those were things that we all knew in a bipartisan way we needed to address."
Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, co-chaired the wildfire interim committee that introduced eight bills this year in response to the growing threat of wildfires.
"We always saw these two issues as bipartisan," Nicholson said. "We never saw them as something that one political party would care about more than another. It was just basic needs of people."
Nicholson highlighted House Bill 1009, which would create an income tax credit to reimburse property owners for half of their wildfire mitigation costs up to $2,500 each tax year.
Rep. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs, is co-sponsor on the bill, which has passed the House 52-12.
"Our goal is to make our communities safer, and to make them safer for our firefighters," Exum said. "I'm hoping the increased incentives will encourage many property owners in the Pikes Peak region and across Colorado to be more proactive about reducing the chance that they will lose their homes to a future wildfire."
Nicholson visited Black Forest after the fire and saw that some homeowners had not mitigated their property - the forest was thick in areas and trees were near homes and other structures.
"There was probably a significant fuel load that made that fire hotter," Nicholson said. "And had there been a lot of mitigation work done, there would have been a lower temperature."
She said the tax incentive will help, but the state faces an uphill battle when it comes to encouraging people in high-risk areas to do the work that could make their homes safer.
The wildcard bill this legislative session will be the proposal from Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, to pay for a fleet of airplanes and helicopters to fight wildfires.
At first the legislation seemed doomed, but Senate President Morgan Carroll added her name to the bill, and a favorable report from the state's top wildland firefighter won support of Gov. John Hickenlooper's office.
The state's budget committee has set aside about $20 million for the fleet, although that likely won't include funding for air tankers that are used to drop large loads of fire retardant. Instead, the bill focuses on helicopters and smaller planes that can be used for spotting and mapping fires.
Despite early opposition, the bill is expected to move rapidly through the House and Senate and land on the governor's desk before the session ends.
"We spent $48 million last year putting out wildfires in Colorado, including the worst fire in Colorado history in Black Forest, and the idea that we would spend $8 to $12 million for Type 1 helicopters I think is a value for our tax dollars," King said.
PROPERTY TAX BREAK
When property tax bills arrived in January, those who lost their homes in the Black Forest fire found they still owed about six months of taxes on homes that were now a mere memory.
El Paso County Assessor Mark Lowderman said state law directs assessors to tax a home while it stands. After it is destroyed, only the land value is taxed.
"They got a reduced tax bill," Lowderman said. "We did get a lot of phone calls, because folks naturally assume they would receive a very small tax bill."
House Bill 1011 would give those homeowners a break on taxes for the 2013 year, totaling an estimated $2.2 million.
It's just one example of two dozen bills proposed at the General Assembly this year to respond to the floods and fires that ravaged the state in 2013.
If the bill is signed into law, it would save El Paso County taxpayers nearly $1.6 million, all linked to the 488 homes lost in the Black Forest fire. That estimate comes from the fiscal analysis done on HB 1001.
"Your home has gone down the river along with all the land it was on - you weren't in the flood plain, but now it's gone - and now you get a tax bill from the assessor," said Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, co-chair of the Flood Disaster Study Committee. "Our laws don't allow any flexibility for that."