IGNACIO – The Los Pinos Fire Protection District took steps toward a possible tax increase ballot measure by meeting this week with key stakeholders.
The fire district has not yet decided whether it will ask taxpayers for a mill levy increase. But district staff estimate Los Pinos could run out of savings in two to four years without some kind of financial solution. The fire district can’t increase the mill levy without a public vote – leaving the district’s future in the hands of voters reluctant to increase taxes.
“We are not here to tell you what we should be,” Greg Childress, a Los Pinos Fire division chief, told a gathering of about 20 stakeholders on Monday. “We are here to inform you of what we are capable of, and let you tell us what you are interested in.”
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.
Childress and Tony Harwig, Los Pinos fire chief, presented six mill levy options, each of which determine what services the district can offer.
The options ranged from no increase to a small increase of about $25 per year for a $100,000 home to a large increase of about $175 per year for a $100,000 home.
The district responds to structure fires and wildland fires, power line issues, gas leaks, heart attacks, car crashes, flooded streets and other emergencies. It offers an advanced life-support ambulance service, which gives patients more medical care options during transit than more basic life-support ambulance services.
Without a tax increase, the district would have to consider stopping its ambulance service or becoming an all-volunteer fire district.
Lowest in the countyProperty taxes make up the majority of the district’s budget. However, the district’s property tax revenues have been gradually decreasing since at least 2010.
State policies, like TABOR, and the decline of the oil and gas industry in the region contributed to the falling revenues, Harwig and Childress said.
Although Los Pinos has about $4 million in savings, the district has had to withdraw funds from its reserves. In 2019, it withdrew about $1 million. If expenses remain constant, the district would run out of reserve funds by 2024.
The 3,000 voters in the Los Pinos area currently pay the lowest fire district mill levy in La Plata County, at 3.52 mills.
The levy is also the lowest among 50 Colorado fire districts which are similar in size or services to Los Pinos, according to Harwig’s analysis of statewide mill levies.
“We’re not looking for a mill levy to pay off a loan,” said Kirk Becker, Los Pinos board president, emphasizing that the department is debt-free.
Harwig and Childress said Los Pinos has already “tightened its belt” and is pursuing every cost-saving option.
“We’re to the point where, to gain any more significant savings for costs, it’s going to get into staffing loss,” Childress said. “That’s what we’ve gotten down to.”
The district already has a small crew. With five crew members in each shift, response times are slower for outlying communities, like Arboles and Allison, they said.
Also, the district can handle only one call at a time. As if to prove the point, the five firefighters left during the meeting to respond to an emergency in Arboles.
“That’s our whole crew gone,” Harwig said to the attendees. If another emergency happened down the street, Los Pinos would have called Durango or Upper Pine River fire protection districts for aid.
An eye on growthThe fire district individually invited some community members and the general public to the meeting, in hopes of learning what level of tax increase – if any – people would support.
Community members, along with district staff, showed the most support for more modest increases, which would raise the existing mill levy to 7.04 mills or 9.9 mills. With those options, residents would pay a total of about $50 to $70 per year based on $100,000 in property value.
Depending on the increase, the district could expand firefighting and ambulance career staff, update and add new equipment, have flexible funds for capital expenses, and pay for volunteer program costs like equipment, training and insurance.
“No one wants to be that No. 2 call and nobody’s coming,” said Jake Nossaman, an Allison resident.
He said the district should keep its ambulance service because over half of the district’s calls in 2019 were for EMT services.
“It looks like something needs to happen to even maintain what we’ve currently got,” Nossaman said. “It looks like a 7.04 or 8.2 mill levy is going to be a must in the future with our growing population.”
Chelsea Hamilton, an Arboles resident, was also looking at the data with growth in mind.
“Ideally, the department needs to be sustainable,” said Hamilton, who supported the 9.9 mill option. “That option also allows them to be able to provide those services more effectively and efficiently if the community grows.”