Seeking increase in mill levy to upgrade equipment, staff; election is May 8
By Reid Wright
Journal Staff Writer An increasing workload and decreasing revenues have prompted the Cortez Fire Protection District to ask its voters for more financial support on the ballot this May.
Chief Jeff Vandevoorde said the district is aware of the financial hardships faced by local residents. "We appreciate the public support that we've had throughout the years," he said. "This is something that we really wish we didn't have to do — asking the taxpayers for help. But this is really a necessity."
The district will be asking voters for a 3.5 levy increase, which translates to an annual increase of $41.79 in property taxes for the owner of a $150,000 property and $69.65 per year increase for the owner of a $250,000 property.
Responses by Cortez firefighters have more than doubled since 2006, while property tax revenues funding the district have decreased.
The district reported responding to 655 emergency calls in 2006, with a steadily increasing volume to 1,585 calls in 2011.
Fire officials attribute an aging population and deteriorating buildings in the county for the increase in medical and fire calls.
The proposed increase would bring in an estimated $500,000 per year, which fire officials say would be used to replace two aging fire engines, firefighter protection gear, staff one additional full-time firefighter on every shift as well as provide trainings for firefighters and the public.
It costs more than $7,000 to equip a firefighter with National Fire Protection Association compliant gear, up to $750,000 for a new fire engine and up to $1 million for a new ladder truck, district leaders said.
Assistant Chief Charles Balke said the goal of new equipment is to increase safety for community members and firefighters.
"It's ensuring that those guys are able to do their job and that they're still able to go home for the day," he said.
Further, if equipment is not up to national standard, the district could be held liable for hundreds of thousands in case of an accident. "If God forbid, there's an injury or a fatality, they're going to come in and look at whether or not we were compliant with these standards," Balke said. "If we were not compliant with these standards, then the organization faces heavy fines."
Although carefully cleaned and maintained, Balke said district fire trucks are beginning to show their age mechanically, with replacement parts becoming increasingly scarce and expensive.
The district currently staffs three paid part-time firefighters on a shift with support from volunteers. Currently, paid firefighters do not receive benefits. If passed by voters, the proposed mill levy increase would add an additional full-time supervisory firefighter to a shift. District administration say a crew of four would be able to drive additional trucks and make entry on structure fires without having to wait for volunteers to respond.
"If we have a fire outside the city limits, it allows us to take two trucks instead of one," Jim Bridgewater, CFPD board chairman said. "With three guys we can only take an engine. If we have four guys, we can put two in the engine, two in the water truck. And have the water that we need immediately."
The district relies heavily on property tax revenues, which are projected to decline $80,599 from 2011 to 2012 due to decreasing property values.
If the mill levy increase is not passed by voters, district administration said more money will be spent maintaining equipment and less will be spent providing services to district residences.
District leaders say they have detailed five and 10 year plans for how the money would be used.
"Our big thing is — promises made, promises kept," Vandevoorde said. "We're going to promise the community we're going to do what we say with the money, we're not just asking for a blank check."
The mail-out ballot election will take place May 8. An election for three fire district board members will also take place at that time. Two seats are open for fouryear terms and one seat is open for a two-year term.
Applicants for the positions may self-nominate at the district headquarters, 23 North Washington St. in Cortez by March 2. Nominees must be a resident of the district for not less than 30 days, an owner of property within the district, the spouse of an owner of property within the district, or a person obligated to pay taxes under a contract to purchase property within the district.
Board members are compensated $75 per meeting.
For more information, or for free group presentations on the ballot issue, the district may be contacted at 565-3157.