The headline in Wednesday’s paper took us by surprise: “District seeks impact fees.”
We did a double-take. It was almost the same headline that ran 11 months ago, in January: “Durango Fire seeks impact fee on new development.”
The new announcement left us shell-shocked. Maybe you, too. Feelings similar to the first stages of grief began to emerge, denial and disbelief among them. Did not district residents just two weeks ago vote overwhelmingly to support a revenue increase for the same purpose – construction and capital needs – as the newly resurfacing impact fee proposal?
Anger is the next stage. Why is the district coming back to city council and the county now, just two weeks after the big win and strong showing of community support? With that vote, the district succeeded in generating approximately $1.3 million a year in perpetuity in additional revenues from existing development, which will only grow with new development.
The mill levy increase, the district says, will only cover 76 percent of its needs over 30 years. The other 24 percent is to come from implementing impact fees so new development “pays its own way.”
We appreciate the district’s outlook in wanting to spread around the financial pinch between current and future homeowners and commercial property owners. Instituting impact fees would do that. It is a worthy topic to pursue in the context of the energy code discussion, other costs new development might shoulder and the short and long-term benefits of each proposal. But something else has happened here.
Perhaps because our fire department professionals are trained in and perform admirably at their jobs delivering emergency services, and lessso in public relations and communications, over the course of their advocacy the public has been getting some mixed, or at least inconsistent, messages.
The conversation about fire department needs centered first on a new location for the downtown Station No. 2 and how to fund it. Because Fire Chief Hal Doughty and his board of directors realized this was an increasingly controversial, longer-term endeavor, they switched to their need for revenue to fund staff and equipment and focused on a mill levy increase.
The mill levy campaign message was that the resulting revenue would support fire and emergency service operations today and into the future. Mostly absent was any emphasis on a new station or the fact that the mill levy would only fund 76 percent of the district’s needs, or that it planned to pick up impact fees down the road.
It’s important to focus in on a single message and the district did that successfully. But the omissions that resurfaced this week, leave us feeling cold. And we’re not the only ones.
“Bait and switch” isn’t exactly right, nor is “swindle,” because with a 30 percent increase in call volume and decrease in revenues since 2011, the need for more funding is there. But call it bad timing, bad messaging or both, the public understanding and trust has been shaken.
This community has shown it wants to support the fire district. Allowing us to relish the win for a bit longer would go a long way to keeping and growing community and elected officials’ support for future initiatives.
In the meantime, the district could get a handle on its plans and how it communicates them to the public. See where new revenue stands a year from now and re-evaluate next steps then.