District officials said before mill levy vote that funds were necessary to maintain, not expand, services
Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District officials told voters before November’s election that they needed a property tax increase to maintain current levels of service and to stave off firing staff.
The mill levy increase passed in a close vote, and the added revenue will indeed go to keeping firefighters employed and keeping the fire trucks and ambulances rolling toward incidents.
But with officials planning to hire someone for a newly created assistant fire chief position, some firefighters are questioning whether the district’s financial straits are as dire as was portrayed to voters.
An anonymous source in the fire district, part of a group of employees that has lodged a workplace grievance against Fire Chief Steve Sowles, said the group believes that “we and the public were lied to.”
Bill Boineau, president of fire district’s board of directors, said Tuesday that he expects to “take a little heat” from the public about the pending hiring.
Sowles, however, defended the new job, saying it’s an important position and the district last year made budget cuts in other areas to help pay the job’s salary.
But a month after the election, district officials discovered that additional revenues they were owed, partially from fighting wildfires elsewhere, were larger than anticipated. Sowles said he didn’t know what that total amount was, but that it would at least initially support the new position. Eventually, however, the new administration job will be funded in part by the mill levy increase.
Sowles said the public was not misled into supporting the tax increase.
Drastic drops in property valuations, and subsequent tax revenue, in the past two years threatened the ability of the district to respond to incidents, he said.
Firefighters’ pay was frozen last year, and some positions were not filled. Some in the district believe its budget would be better spent in those areas versus hiring another administrator, sources said.
Shortly before the November election, Boineau said the district needed a mill levy increase just 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.”
Fire Marshal John Mele went further on the hiring issue, telling the Snowmass Sun in October, “It’s really a no-growth ballot measure.”
“The funds that would be achieved from this are not funds that are going to grow the fire department, add any positions or build a new station or any of that,” Mele told the newspaper.
The mill levy measure passed 55 to 44 percent. It will raise the property tax bill of residents in the district by 3 mills over the next two years, including from 3.6 to 4.6 this year.
The district could have collected another 0.54 mills in 2013 but decided against it given the amount of extra money that was brought in, Sowles said.
“We only take what we need,” he said.
The mill levy will increase again in 2014, though it’s unclear what the amount will be because the district could again decide not to collect as much as voters allowed.
Jake Andersen, vice president of the Snowmass firefighters union, said he and other firefighters agree with the source who contended that district officials weren’t honest with voters.
“They said this has to pass, or we’re going to lay off four people,” he said.
But at the very next meeting after the election, officials brought up the new assistant chief job, Andersen said.
“They said, ‘We came up with more money than we thought,’” he said. “We were left with our mouths open wondering, ‘What is going on?’”
A total of 11 firefighters last month submitted two grievances against Sowles, saying he had created “an environment of fear and distrust” that has contributed to an abnormally high rate of employee turnover. Sowles said the claims are unfounded.
The new assistant fire chief will have a starting salary of $75,000, Sowles said.
The person will also act as a training officer who will be able to offer uniform instruction to firefighters. Training is “so standardized, and we need to know that people are doing things exactly the same,” Sowles said.
“It’s one of the most important positions” in a fire district, he said.
Training now is done by various individuals and isn’t consistent across the board, Boineau said.
“We’ve been talking about hiring this position for a couple of years,” he said. “It’s not something that came up new since the election.”