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Fire district trying to improve emergency services
9/4/2013 By: Carole McWilliams
Upper Pine losing paramedics to other districts
News update: The Upper Pine board on Wednesday agreed to the wording on a 5.9 mill levy increase for the district with a 10-year sunset clause. The mill levy question will go before voters this fall. Read more in Friday's edition of the Times.
Upper Pine Fire Chief Bruce Evans has a goal this year to upgrade emergency medical services to paramedic level.
Until recently, the district’s responders were trained to EMT-Intermediate level. Paramedic is the next step up. It’s what all the surrounding fire districts have. Around 80 percent of district calls are medical, including vehicle crashes.
At the Aug. 15 Upper Pine Board meeting, Evans reported that one of the district’s recently trained paramedics has resigned and is going to the Pagosa district for $9,000 more pay and better job security.
Another is at risk of leaving and is struggling to pay student loans for paramedic training, Evans said.
“We’ll have to decide if we want to continue to be a mill, training people who leave, or do we want to retain people” with better pay and benefits, he said.
That information tied in with discussion of a possible ballot issue this fall to seek voter approval of higher property taxes to make up for steadily declining assessed valuations.
The district has cut staff or reduced positions to part time this year to preserve budget reserves.
“Morale is low,” Evans said. “People are feeling the stress. I don’t think the public sees it. They are still providing good customer service. They are worried about whether they’ll still have a job after November.”
Board members approved an intergovernmental agreement with the La Plata and Archuleta County clerks to conduct mail ballot elections for the district, but they delayed a decision on actual ballot wording to a special meeting at 8 a.m. on Sept. 4.
Sept. 6 is the deadline to submit ballot wording to the county clerk.
Attorney Dirk Nelson presented two possible versions. One would raise the property tax rate to 11.5 mills, double the current rate, in anticipation of assessed valuations falling by half. The county assessor is expected to announce new valuations any day.
The other version would state how much money the district needs, and authorize the tax rate that provides that amount.
District accountant Mickey Ramsey said the district needs around $2.7 million to maintain current levels of service. The anticipated lower assessed valuation might only bring in $1.2 million at the current tax rate, he said.
Other funding comes from medical billing, grants, and payments for people and equipment deployed to non-local wildland fires.
Ramsey said the $2.7 million is “just to keep what we are doing in 2014. No raises, no increases of reserves or (vehicle) replacement. It’s just breaking even.”
Evans suggested putting a 10-year sunset on the tax increase to make it easier to sell to voters.
Board member John Beebe agreed. “It addresses the issue that we’ve heard all along (at community presentations) of accountability.”
Nelson said, “I’ve seen sunset clauses in these (ballot issues), but they are pretty rare. You are funding operations here. … This will be more than half your revenue. You could have it drop out in 10 years” unless voters renew the tax.
Ramsey commented, “This is operating money. Nothing is going to change in 10 years unless valuations go up. Then you face the same question.”
But he added, “People say once they (government) get taxes, they’ll just spend it. This is a way to have accountability.”
Nelson said he’d draft ballot wording with the 10-year sunset for consideration at the Sept. 4 meeting.
He advised that converting existing lease purchase obligations to bond debt probably would be considered creating new debt under the state TABOR Amendment and would require voter approval separate from the mill levy increase.
The district board makes lease purchase payments with general operating money, with authorization year to year.
It’s a significant drain on operating money, Beebe said. “That means we have to ask for more in the mill (levy) to support that debt.”
Previous discussion has listed capital and lease purchase costs at $461,014, most of that for lease purchase payments on the district administration building and some equipment.
Ballots for the mill levy election will go to district residents, including renters, who are registered voters; and to non-resident district property owners if they are registered to vote in Colorado.
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