Fountain voters will decide in November whether to increase property taxes to hire additional police officers and firefighters.
The city would like to increase property taxes from 10.239 mills to 16.339 mills to hire an additional six police officers and six more firefighters and raise more funds for retention and recruitment, city officials said. If approved, voters would pay $183 more annually on a $400,000 house to raise $1.7 million for public safety each year, City Manager Scott Trainor said.
The increase in funding is necessary to help fight the raising rate of crime and requests for services that has driven the number of calls to Fountain police up from about 38,600 in 2020 to about 47,000 in 2021, said Chris Heberer, director of public safety and police chief. At the same time, the city is trying to consider rising inflation and costs that are hitting residents, he said.
"The art is not asking for too much to be respectful, but then asking for enough that it makes a difference," he said. The police department has funding for 61 officers and 58 positions are filled, he said.
He noted that if the tax passed the new officers could help with additional traffic enforcement and patrol positions to help address rising needs. For example, the department saw the number of narcotics calls rise from 167 in 2020 to 267 in 2021.
Some of the factors that might be pushing crime rates higher are mental health challenges, changes to bond protocols and the national conversation around police stemming from high-profile cases such as the death of George Floyd, a man killed by police in Minneapolis.
The demand for pubic safety services has also risen with the population that has grown from 15,000 in 1990 — the last time the mill levy was increased — to 32,000 currently, he said.
Interim Fire Chief Tom Joyce said his fire department is running at minimum staffing levels and the community needs to weigh in on whether that is acceptable.
"If they want to continue with 10 firefighters per shift … we all have to ask ourselves, is that OK?" he said.
The low staffing levels have resulted in mandatory overtime and staff members having their leave denied, Joyce told Fountain City Council. Fountain firefighters responded to about 4,800 mostly medical calls in 2021 and that is expected to rise to 8,000 calls annually in the future.
"If we don’t grow with our community, it is going to be very difficult for us to meet those challenges," he said.
Fountain is also planning to build a fourth fire station on the east side of town in 2025 with new impact fees, Heberer said, and the new funding is needed to staff the station. The station could help lower homeowners' insurance costs depending on the company, he said.
A property tax increase for police and fire services is expected to be popular, a survey of about 850 registered voters showed, said David Flaherty, with Magellan Strategies, a public opinion firm.
About 58% said they would support a tax increase for police and fire services, before hearing about specific tax increase amounts or additional services, Flaherty told the council earlier this summer.
"You are starting out at a pretty good place," he said.
Some of the support is likely driven by perceived risk in the community.
The survey found that 71% thought that crime was on the rise in Fountain and 64% believed fire risk was on the rise, he said.
Support for the tax increase would likely rise as voters learn more details about planned spending, he said. For example if the question was approved, the police department could spend more time on traffic enforcement reduced response, crimes against children, sex trafficking and financial crimes, he said.
Fountain's council decided not to ask voters for a 1% sales tax increase that would support road construction in November and join the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, a regional governmental entity that funds road projects. Polling showed support for the public safety and road funding questions dropped significantly if they appeared together, Flaherty said.
The community does see a need for greater investment roads with only 20% of 520 voters saying that Fountain's roads are in good condition, he said.
"In my 15 years of doing this, I have never had a rating this low," he said.
The council asked city staff in July work on joining the authority in the future.