In early September, Los Pinos Fire Protection District saved a burning house with just four crew members. They had no relief crew at the scene – no secondary crew to answer other calls in the area. Even Fire Chief Tony Harwig grabbed his gear to help out.
“It should have been a 20-person fire,” Harwig said at a board meeting. “They were wore out; that was hard to watch.”
Crews will continue to face similar situations unless the district can climb out of its deepening financial struggle. With few options, district managers are considering a tax increase in 2020.
The Los Pinos district covers 325 square miles in La Plata County, and parts of the Southern Ute reservation, Archuleta County and northern New Mexico.
Harwig said the district will run out of savings in about two years under the current budget if it uses funds for capital expenses like fixing equipment, or four years if it puts off those costs. District managers are trying everything – even selling trucks – to scrape by.
“We have to ask (for an increase),” he said. “Our budget that we got on our mill levy this year ... doesn’t even cover our salaries. It doesn’t cover the five people that are on duty each day.”
The agency’s average yearly expenses total an estimated $2.3 million, while its average yearly income is about $1.5 million, Harwig said. In 2019, managers pulled $900,000 from savings.
In the past three years, 50% to 63% of Los Pinos’ yearly revenue came from property taxes – and most of that comes from oil and gas operations. When the industry was at its peak, district managers saved to prepare for a decline. Still, reserves are rapidly depleting.
“When you run at a $1 million (deficit) or over every year, eventually, we’re going to go out of business,” Harwig said.
The last time Los Pinos got an increase was in the late 1990s. Los Pinos has the lowest fire district mill levy in La Plata County, 3.52, compared with other district tax rates, which range from 8.2 to 12.42, according to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.
To top it off, the district’s 2019 property value assessment dropped by $22 million to $304 million, which further decreases the agency’s tax revenue. For reference, the assessed property value was about $1 billion in 2010.
Live within your meansLos Pinos has been making cuts for years to try to maintain a healthy financial balance.
It cut staff. In 2009, the district had 49 employees. By 2019, it had 23 full-time employees and 12 part-time reservists, according to district records. It eliminated administrative positions. In 2014, managers phased out the volunteer program.
With one five-person crew on each shift, the agency can answer only one call at a time. It relies on neighboring districts for any other emergency calls. When air tanks are empty, the crews go to Durango to fill them because the agency can’t pay to fix its own refilling system.
Soon, Harwig plans to sell trucks.
Since Harwig joined Los Pinos as fire chief in June, he has made calculated risks to bring the agency out of its financial struggles. He hired two new crew members and a division chief who will bring in grant money and create a new volunteer recruitment program.
But cutbacks have consequences. Selling fire trucks could result in higher fire insurance costs for residents because of how those rates are calculated. The agency could be all-volunteer, but then the community would lose its paramedic ambulance service and guaranteed fire engine, Harwig said.
“We’ve done everything to this point, I feel, in this department to live within our means,” Harwig said. “We’ve dropped our staff to the minimum staffing level that is safe.”