Tony Harwig, Los Pinos Fire Protection District’s chief, was relieved after seeing the voting results Tuesday: Residents approved a vital property tax increase.
Los Pinos has been heading toward a financial cliff – its budget has steadily declined over the years mostly because of the decrease in property tax revenue from the oil and gas industry. There were no more budget cuts, Harwig said.
Hours after voters approved the tax increase, Ballot Measure 7A, Los Pinos was already making plans for its future.
“I’m excited for the community. We’ve already started meetings and started to put the flowcharts together for the next five years,” Harwig said. “It was exciting to see that it was overwhelmingly accepted.”
The district covers 325 square miles, mostly in southeast La Plata County. It also spans parts of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe reservation, Archuleta County and northwest New Mexico.
Of about 2,700 La Plata County residents who voted on the measure, 64% supported it and 36% opposed it, according to unofficial results. About 400 Archuleta County residents also voted on the tax increase: 59% voted for it; 41% voted against it.
Ballot Issue 7A increased the district’s property tax rate from 3.52 mills to 9.5 mills, or about $45 more per year for every $100,000 in assessed home value. Property owners will see the increase in April when they pay their taxes, Harwig said.
The funding will add about $1.5 million in tax revenue to the district’s 2021 budget, bringing the total tax revenue to $2.5 million, he said. Its total budget will be $3 million.
That’s a big difference for a district that saw its revenue drop by more than 60%, from $4.9 million to $1.8 million, over the last decade.
The first priority, Harwig said, is building up crew numbers.
“The biggest problem right now is our response time getting all the way down to Arboles or to Oxford,” he said. “If we can get some people out to those areas that are trained is our No. 1 thing.”
Before the tax increase, each shift could deploy one ambulance and one fire engine at a time.
Los Pinos will add three full-time crew positions using the new funding, so it can respond with two ambulances per shift. That will help the district answer multiple calls at a time and shorten its response times in communities farther from Ignacio.
Los Pinos also plans to launch its volunteer program by early spring. People can help with firefighting, web design and social media, Harwig said.
The volunteer program will offer multiple firefighting positions based on how many responsibilities or how much training people are willing to take on. For example, volunteers could help fight wildland fires, structure fires from the exterior of a building or structure fires both inside and outside buildings, all based on how much training they are willing to do.
Los Pinos is still using a 45-year-old truck, which the district plans to replace over the next year. (It takes a year to build a fire truck.)
It will also be able to provide crew members with more personal protective equipment. Staff members were down to one set of bunker gear, which is a concern when gear can be contaminated with cancer-causing materials during structure fires, Harwig said.
The district also plans to start building crew housing at its Arboles station and remodel crew quarters in Ignacio in 2021.
“It’s just a big relief,” Harwig said, particularly for the crews that have endured layoffs over the last few years.
“I was just looking these guys in the eyes over the last couple days. They’re like, ‘Do I need to look for another job?’” Harwig said. “Now, it’s just a totally different demeanor. ... They took a deep breath, and I took a deep breath because I don’t have to face somebody and say we don’t have a spot for you now.”