Fire districts make their case for mill-levy increases

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Rising costs and stagnant funding have prompted two area fire districts to ask at the ballot box for mill levy increases.

The Cortez Fire Protection District wants voters to approve an increase of 2.5 mills, to bring the total district mill levy to 9.399.

The Lewis-Arriola Fire Protection District is asking electors to fully remove it from the revenue-capping provisions of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and approve a 1.910 mill levy increase.

Cortez Fire Protection District

The CFPD has gone without a mill levy increase for 20 years, said Fire Chief Jeff Vandevoorde. (Disclosure: Four Corners Free Press co-owner Wendy Mimiaga works for the fire district.) Raising the mill levy would mean a person whose home’s assessed value is $150,000 would see an increase amounting to just under $30 per year, according to the district.

“It’s not a lot,” said Vandevoorde. “I try to get across to people that it brings us $361,000 a year. It’s a real good increase for us. It’s the first time in 20 years we would get an increase.”

An attempt to raise the mill levy last year failed by just 300 votes, he said, but that attempt was more ambitious.

“We didn’t have a raise in 20 years, but our expenses increased,” he said.

Expenses include vital equipment, such as air packs for the firefighters and new vehicles to replace the aging fleet. The CFPD has received some grant funding through the Department of Local Affairs, which enabled it to get a new engine.

“We’re trying to do a little at a time. Everything goes up.”

Except, right now, for property values; Vandevoorde said the CFPD’s property tax revenues have dropped by $30,000 over the past few years. “We’re just trying to do the best we can right now.”

The bulk of the district’s budget comes from the mill levy; it receives about $80,000 a year from motor vehicle registrations and license plate fees, Vandevoorde said.

While funding has dropped, costs have risen, and so too has call volume. Between 2006 and 2012, the CFPD went from 650 calls per year to 1,500, the chief said. This year’s numbers sit at about 1,200 calls, with three months left to go. “This year, we’ll break the 1,500 mark,” he said.

The district responds to calls in a 162 square-mile area. It is staffed by six full-time and 25 part-time firefighters, who are posted for shift work at three stations — County Road G and U.S. 160; downtown Cortez and Dolores Road, near the Elks Club. Shifts usually include two full-time employees and two part-time employees, assuring 24/7 service and quick response. (An estimated three minutes in town; about 10 outside town.) The district is also assisted by a number of volunteer firefighters.

“One of the big misconceptions is that people think we’re just driving around. We have three stations that we need to clean up and need to check equipment at. A lot of calls we run don’t require lights and sirens,” Vandevoorde said, mentioning a three-day streak of 10 calls each.

“Those guys are constantly on calls, training, everything. They are dedicated men and women,” their chief said. “We have a lot of good volunteers and a lot of good people working for us. I don’t think people see that sometimes, or what it takes to do the job they (firefighters) do.”

If the mill levy increase passes, services will increase, as will the potential for even quicker response times, because the district will have more bodies to cover simultaneous calls. This is expected to also help the district’s insurance rating.

“This will really help move the district forward. The hardest part is not having had a mill increase in 20 years. We just really struggle to make sure we put our money in the right places,” Vandevoorde said.

If voters shoot down the requested increase, contingency plans include not buying needed equipment, holding off on updating the fleet and trimming on-duty manpower.

“Nobody likes to ask for a tax increase. For under $30 a year (per owner of a $150,000 home), it means to us $361,000. It’s really needed. We need to keep moving forward. It would be just such a huge benefit to us,” he said.

“I’m really hoping it passes this year.”

Lewis-Arriola Fire Protection District

The Lewis-Arriola Fire Protection District is aiming for an even 5 mills, said Chief George Deavers.

As is the case for CFPD, the district is seeing rising costs, rising equipment needs and diminished funding.

“Everything is just going up,” Deavers said. “We’re building a new station right now and we have some aging equipment that needs to be updated.”

The new station will replace the main station on County Road S. The district also has three substations for timely response to calls in its sprawling service area that stair-steps from County Road 25 to the Utah state line, and from County Road M to County Road Z.

The L-AFPD was exempted from TABOR (de-Bruced) in 1998, but because of the way that exemption had been worded on the ballot, the de-Brucing was only partial.

“We haven’t been able to receive all of the (property tax) money due to us, so we have to de-Bruce so we can get that,” said Deavers.

“We can only receive 5.5 percent more money next year than we can receive now” because of the TABOR caps. “Our actual mill levy is 3.090 and we’re only able to draw (1.792 mills), because TABOR won’t let us draw our actual mill levy.”

A vote to merely increase the mill levy for L-AFPD won’t do any good unless the full de-Brucing measure is passed as well, he said.

If both pass, the additional revenue would be used to improve and update equipment and infrastructure.

“We definitely need one more structure engine and a larger station at Goodman Point,” Deavers said. “We have brush trucks that need updated. Being a volunteer department, you don’t get as much as you want, but you try to get by with what you have.”

The L-AFPD will have to do just that if the measures fail and “hope everything keeps working,” he said.

The district has been repeatedly turned down for grant funding in recent years, with the exception of a grant to help build the new station, the chief said.

The district is able to cover the matching fund requirement of that grant out of its reserves, but doing so would draw the reserve “way down,” according to Deavers.

The 27-member volunteer department also needs new bunker gear that meets current standards.

The district operated last year on an approximately $400,000 budget. Calls for service have seen an increase, for the most part, the chief said.

“We’ve been increasing, this last year, we were down a little bit, but we average 200 calls a year,” said Deavers.

Deavers said he is unaware of formal opposition to the measures, as a deadline for submitting formal statements has passed.

He appealed to voters to approve the measures. “So we can help provide better coverage for their property and their well-being. We work hard at trying to help everyone in the community.”

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From October 2013.