The Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District has placed a mill levy increase — its first since 2001 — on Tuesday’s ballot, citing drastic drops in property tax revenues that fund fire and ambulance services in the Snowmass Village area.
With the value of properties in Pitkin County dropping 27 percent in 2011 and another 25 percent next year, Fire Chief Steve Sowles said his organization can no longer rely on its reserves to keep up current levels of service.
The 2012 budget was about $2.5 million, but the district used $347,000 in its reserves to shore up the losses in tax revenue, Sowles said Monday.
“Our problem is that we’re not putting money back into reserves,” he said. “Our reserves won’t carry us.”
So the district, which encompasses 21 square miles, has put forth measure 5C. Voters in the district will decide if they want to raise their tax rate by 3 mills, with 1.54 coming in 2013 and the remainder in 2014. The full amount would add $23.67 to a property tax bill on a home worth $200,000, according to district figures. The district currently has a mill levy rate of 3.6.
Bill Boineau, president of the Snowmass-Wildcat board and a retired firefighter with the district, said without the tax increase, the organization’s shortfall could rise to between $800,000 and $1 million in 2014.
The money will not go toward salary increases — pay rates for the 20 full-time staff were frozen this year — or capital projects, said Boineau, also the mayor of Snowmass Village.
“We’re just trying to maintain the level of service that the community has come to expect,” he said. “We’ve kept expenses down as much as possible ... and we’re being very cautious.”
But the property tax revenue that funds the district “doesn’t cover all the costs,” Boineau said.
Those expenses include roughly $1.2 million for payroll. Without the tax increase, Sowles said he will likely have to lay off three or four people, with the remaining staff taking a pay cut.
All but two of the firefighters with the district are also trained as paramedics, Sowles said. Salaries range from the fire chief, who is paid $133,000 a year, to firefighter/paramedics who make in the $50,000 to $68,000 range.
Unlike the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department, which has long used residents freely offering their time, the Snowmass district moved to a paid system in the late 1980s.
Boineau and Sowles said there were various reasons for it. One is that Snowmass Village residents wanted their own department for firefighters and ambulance crews so they wouldn’t have to wait on Aspen emergency personnel, Sowles said.
Having the station in the village has led to average response times of five minutes, he said.
Boineau said another reason is that it proved harder for Snowmass Village to retain a volunteer-only corps compared to Aspen.
“We had a difficult time in finding volunteers, whereas Aspen’s been able to maintain its structure,” he said.
Another difference is that the Snowmass district oversees its own ambulance division while Aspen Ambulance is a separate special taxing district from the Aspen Fire Protection District.