The city of Durango and surrounding area need additional firefighters and fire stations, but the Durango Fire Protection District can’t pay for them without a property tax increase.
The fire district board is considering whether to ask voters within the district, but outside city limits, to raise property taxes by 2.5 mills, which would raise an additional $1.3 million annually for the district. The district covers 325 square miles in central La Plata County and along U.S. Highway 550.
The Durango City Council may also ask voters to raise property taxes so it can also generate additional revenue for the district.
The fire board wants to act collaboratively with the city on the increase that the district needs to handle the rising volume of 911 calls, board member Kathy Morris said.
“As a board, we have got to make sure we are acting proactively,” she said.
The council may vote Tuesday on whether to ask city voters in November to increase property taxes by 2.5 mills. City voters could also be asked to approve an amendment between the city and the fire protection district.
The city contracts with the fire district for services and pays the district with money generated from sales taxes. But the city needs an additional source of revenue to generate the $1.3 million needed for the city to pay its share of the mill increase and that is why a property tax increase within the city is necessary. The city’s property tax is currently 2.5 mills, which means the increase would double the existing city rate, according to city documentation. Residents pay other property taxes for schools, county services, mosquito control and more.
The Durango Fire Protection District has used savings in recent years to cover operational expenses, and the district expects demands on staff to continue to increase as the population grows, Fire Chief Hal Doughty said.
“We don’t have the ability to slow down the workload that’s coming at us,” he said.
In 2017, the district used $435,000 from savings to cover operational costs, and that is not a sustainable model, Doughty said.
If the property tax increase passed, Doughty could boost the number of firefighters working each day from 18 to 25 to better handle multiple 911 calls coming in at the same time.
The increase would also help the district build new stations and replace aging vehicles, some 20 years old and older. Station No. 2 near the intersection of 12th Street and Camino del Rio needs to be replaced because it is undersized and has ventilation issues.
The district also needs to build a new fire station to serve Three Springs subdivision, among other needs.
Some of the details of the city’s amended agreement have not been worked out, and the council will not put it on the ballot if all the financial details aren’t decided, Mayor Dick White said.
“It’s not completely obvious to me we’re going to get it done,” he said.
One of the outstanding issues is a site for a rebuilt Station No. 2 to serve downtown. The fire district would like to pay for a new building estimated to cost about $9 million on city property and turn the building over to city ownership, Doughty said.
The land chosen for the new fire station could directly impact the financial details in the contract between the city and the fire district, White said. But the site could also become a standalone issue that’s not part of the November vote.
The council is leaning toward designating land it owns in the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad parking lot for the new station, White said during a meeting on Tuesday. But the council has not voted on the issue.
The fire district supports building the station near the railroad depot, Doughty said.
“It provides us with the space that we need; it assures there is really good access for the next 50 to 100 years for fire and EMS services to be able to get to the downtown area,” he said.
Fire department staff responded to 1,800 calls from the downtown area last year, he said.
Some residents think the site could be used for an events center that would have a significant economic return for the city, resident Tim Wheeler said at Tuesday’s meeting. Wheeler urged the city to not rush to a decision.
“It’s now time to really deliberate and get this right,” he said.
The exact term of the amended contract between the city and the fire district also has not been determined, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said. The current contract is good for another 11 years. The fire district would like to see the contract extended 25 to 30 years.
Negotiations between the fire district and the city have been ongoing for a long time, but they were set back in part by city elections in April, White said.
“The fact there was an election in between stirred the pot in terms of being able to get the council on the same page,” White said.
The fire district is also asking the council and La Plata County commissioners to approve fire-impact fees that would apply to new residential and commercial construction to pay for the fire services and infrastructure that those areas will need.
“The impact fees are a protection for everybody that already lives in La Plata County and everybody that is already paying taxes,” he said
Doughty did not intend for both impact fees and a property tax measure to be discussed at the same time, but it took longer than he anticipated for the boards to consider the fees, he said.