This summer, Durango sustained three events that underscore the critical importance of swift and effective fire protection services: the 1111 Camino del Rio blaze, the tragic fire at Tercero Townhouses and the Lightner Creek wildfire.
In particular, immediate response from the Durango Fire Protection District slowed the spread of the Lightner Creek fire until aerial attack could contain it. The outcome was an immense relief of residents in the Rockridge and Crestview neighborhoods in Durango, as well as in the county lands along Lightner Creek and in Rafter J.
However, only about 20 percent of DFPD calls come for fires; the other 80 percent are for emergency medical services and, as in the case of fires, rapid response may make the difference between life and death. To put it bluntly, first-rate service by DFPD is essential for public safety in the city and in the other areas of La Plata County served by the fire district.
The organization now known as DFPD formed in 2002 through the merger of the Durango Fire Department and the Animas and Hermosa Cliffs Fire Protection Districts, along with Mercy Paramedics. The initial partnership, Durango Fire and Rescue Authority, still had multiple governing boards and relied on year-to-year appropriations from each. Voters approved formation of DFPD in 2007, but not the associated ballot issue that would have established long-term funding for DFPD with a uniform property tax.
DFRA continued with year-to-year funding until 2014. At that time, the city withdrew from DFPD and negotiated a 15-year contract for emergency services at a cost based on property evaluation in the city, but paid from the city’s general fund, without a corresponding increase in the city mill levy. The other districts and DFRA dissolved, and DFPD finally could undertake multi-year financial planning.
Unfortunately, DFPD funding has fallen in the last three years, primarily owing to collapsing natural gas revenue, even as call volume has grown at 7 percent per year, surpassing 5,000 calls in 2016.
One consequence is that DFPD responds to five or more concurrent calls about once per month. The district can deploy four ambulances, but it lacks the personnel and equipment to do more. That means that response to a fifth call may await arrival of a crew from Bayfield or Ignacio. In this situation, the delay might well mean that a home or business burns or a resident or visitor dies for lack of timely medical attention.
Operating in the red, as DFPD is doing this year, is unsustainable, and belt-tightening can go only so far before it injures the district and those of us who depend on their immediate responses.
Therefore, to maintain and improve its service levels in the face of increasing demands from the community, DFPD is asking members for a property tax increase from 5.7 to 8.2 mills. Additional funds would balance the operating budget, increase staffing to provide an additional emergency crew and provide resources to replace aging equipment - 16 of DFPD’s fire trucks are at least 20 years old. (For more information, see durangofire.org and http://bit.ly/2hm3MCw.)
To pay our fair share, the city of Durango must contribute about an additional $1.4 million. With only minimal growth in the unrestricted sales tax revenue that mostly supports our general fund, the 2018 budget cannot sustain this increase. Consequently, the city council approved a ballot measure that would both adjust our contract with DFPD to specify our contribution as equivalent to the DFPD 8.2 mill rate and raise the city levy by 2.5 mills to pay the additional cost.
Durango’s property tax levy now is 2.5 mills. It has not changed since 1982, and the city actually receives more revenue from parking meters! The increase from 2.5 mills to 5 mills would cost just $72 per year for a $400,000 residential property or $362.50 for a $500,000 commercial property. The requested tax increase would help to ensure continuation of the outstanding emergency services we all receive from DFPD.
Importantly, the levies from both the district and the city must pass, or else neither one of them does. Further, if the ballot issues fail and DFPD service levels decline for lack of resources, increases in insurance premiums might well exceed the cost of the tax increase.
We all are in this together. Please vote “yes” on Ballot Question 2A in Durango and Ballot Question 4A in La Plata County areas served by DFPD. Your life might depend on it.
Dick White is the mayor of Durango, a position rotating among members of city council. He was re-elected in 2015 and will serve as mayor until April 2018, when he will be succeeded by now-Mayor Pro Tem Sweetie Marbury. Reach him at DickWhite@DurangoGov.org.