More and more people are calling for local firefighters and paramedics each year, and as the need grows, the new fire chief is planning for more staff, buildings and vehicles – the rub is how to pay for them.
The Durango Fire Protection District needs about $32 million for buildings, ambulances and fire trucks, said Hal Doughty, the new chief.
But he hopes to start with projects that can be paid for out of the district’s savings of about $7.8 million and grants over the next four or five years before asking for a property tax increase to fund more projects and staff.
“We want to take the most responsible approach possible, and for us that means spending down the money that we’ve been fortunate enough to put away for a rainy day prior to ever asking the public to help us,” he said.
It’s a strategy the district’s board supports, especially in light of the recent failure of La Plata County’s bid for a road and bridge tax increase, said board president Kathy Morris.
“We’ve been fiscally responsible and conservative over the years,” she said.
In 2016, the fire department’s budget outlook is bright because property evaluations are up. But as tax revenue from oil-and-gas production declines, it will likely hurt the budget in the future, Doughty said.
In the past few years, the number of calls the district receives has steadily risen about 6 to 8 percent a year, Doughty said. For example, in 2011, 3,691 people called with an emergency. In 2014, the district received 4,584 calls, said Deputy Chief Randy Black. About 75 percent of these emergencies are medical in nature, and the rest encompass fires, rescues and other emergencies.
As the workload continues to increase, Doughty plans to train more volunteers. Without a property tax increase, the district can’t hire more staff.
The department probably can maintain about 100 volunteers, and it currently has about 80, he said. These volunteers staff 12 of the district’s 16 stations.
“We work really hard to maintain that core of volunteers,” he said.
But there is a balance to maintain between training volunteers and the costs required to train and outfit them with gear, he said.
New fire stations
In the next few years, the district also hopes to replace two fire stations without a tax increase. The highest priorities for the district are Station No. 2, near River City Hall along Camino del Rio, and Station No. 3, near 32nd Street and East Animas Road (County Road 250), Doughty said.
The fire department moved into Station No. 2 in the early 1980s, and it was expected to be a temporary location at the time, Doughty said.
Now, the ceiling is stained with leaks, and the largest fire engine fits with only inches to spare. It also has problems with ventilation and insulation, Black said.
This station is key because it serves the downtown core, which has potential for big fires, such as the 2008 blaze on the 700 block of Main Avenue.
But it doesn’t have any extra space for more staff or vehicles, and Doughty would like to see the entire station rebuilt.
The district is working with the city on a plan for the station because the city owns the building. This plan could include moving the station if the right site near downtown can be found, Doughty said.
Station No. 3 also needs to be expanded because it has room for only paid staff members, but a large contingent of volunteers live near the station, and they could use space if it was available.
Future ballot measure
The district’s current mill rate is 5.7 mills, which provides an operating budget of about $11 million, Doughty said.
“Currently, that’s barely getting us by,” he said.
It is also low compared with the mill rates across the state and in the county, he said. When the district brings the measure to the voters, he hopes to be able to show the district has exhausted all other options.
“We’re going to do everything we can to develop the system the best way we can before asking for more money,” he said.