Anything that involves multiple acronyms, overlapping names and the term “mill levy” is bound to seem complex and confusing. And the ballot measures local firefighters plan to put before the voters this fall fit that bill. In fact, though, the plan is fundamentally simple. If passed, the ballot measures will clean up a messy situation, allow for the continuation of the good fire protection and emergency services Durango and the surrounding areas now enjoy – and do so at no additional cost and with no tax increase.
It certainly seems that those in charge listened to the voters and gave the matter some serious thought.
The basic idea is for one ballot issue to unify the old Animas Fire Protection District and the Hermosa Cliffs Fire Protection District as the Durango Fire Protection District, replace their existing boards with one, and replace their existing property taxes with a single rate. The city of Durango has withdrawn from DFPD, but if city voters approve the other ballot measure, it would enter into a 15-year contract to have emergency services provided by Durango Fire.
The changes would be legal and administrative. They would not increase taxes or affect service, except to ensure its continuity and allow for better planning.
The need for something like this began with the 2002 merging of three fire departments – the city of Durango’s, Animas (which surrounds town) and Hermosa Cliffs (serving the northernmost part of the county) into one entity: Durango Fire & Rescue Authority. That merger was approved by the voters in 2006.
That consolidation, however, was operational. It did not address the fact that each of the old districts had – and still have – their own board and funding mechanism. Separate property taxes pay the bills for the Animas and Hermosa Cliff districts, while the city has historically funded fire protection from its general fund, which is primarily sales tax revenue.
Attempts to eliminate those duplicative boards and levy a uniform property tax across the consolidated districts were shot down by the voters in 2006 and again in 2011 because such a uniform tax would have meant a large tax increase for Durango residents. And because that property tax increase would have fallen disproportionately on commercial properties, it would have raised prices for everyone.
What we are effectively left with is a fire department (DFRA) governed by five boards: its own, the City Council, Animas, Hermosa Cliffs and the existing Durango Fire Protection District, which the voters created but did not fund. It is a bureaucratic mess constantly at risk of a political blowup that could be detrimental to emergency services.
By coming up with a plan that would end duplicative, costly and potentially destructive bureaucracy – and at the same time allow city residents to pay their share without a tax increase – the leaders of the various districts have effectively addressed the objections the voters had with the 2006 and 2011 efforts. It is a clever solution that should work well.
Our only concern is that city residents would have no elected representation on the remaining Durango Fire board. That makes the terms of the contract between the city and the fire district crucial. There is no question that DFRA provides uniform and professional service to residents across the board, but times, leadership and board members can change and a lot can happen in 15 years.
Of course, anything with this many moving parts and dealing with such an important service is bound to generate questions and discussion, which should be welcome. But so far this appears to be a workable fix to an untenable situation.