Energy boom pays a $4 million dividend for fire district
By LE ROY STANDISH
A 2008 voter-approved mill levy for the De Beque Fire Protection District was estimated to bring in $140,000 a year for the tiny volunteer fire department.
In reality, it is raking in more than $4 million a year, De Beque Fire Chief Nick Marx said.
“When (the Garfield County Assessor’s Office) re-evaluated the energy industry, the assessed valuation went way up from what we thought it was going to be, so we got considerably more,” Marx said. “It went from an anticipated $140,000 on 4 mills to a little over $4 million on the same 4 mills.”
Marx said the assessed valuation of the Garfield County area served by the fire district was $1 million at the time the ballot language was assembled in 2008.
“When they reassessed it, it came in at $1.2 billion,” Marx said.
Two-thirds of the fire district’s 800-square-mile coverage area is in Garfield County.
There is a two-year lag in valuation, and the current valuation reflects production and pricing of oil and gas from 2007, the second-highest year on record, Garfield County Assessor John Gorman said.
The following year, 2008, brought even higher prices and greater production.
“That will produce 2009 assessed values, which will again be the highest ever,”
Gorman said. “So 2010 will likely be a good year, revenue wise, for the fire district.”
It is a windfall the department is taking advantage of by buying new fire engines, hiring firefighters and making fresh plans for a new fire station.
Marx already has hired four full-time firefighters. Before the approval of the mill levy last November, Marx was the department’s only paid employee, and he said most of the department’s equipment was dilapidated.
“Before we got this mill levy ... it was kind of a dead-end situation, Band-Aids on Band-Aids,” he said.
The district plans to spend $3 million over five years on a lease/purchase agreement for new equipment, Marx said.
The first acquisition was a ladder truck, which can reach the top of a four-story building. The tallest building in De Beque is two stories.
Marx said the ladder truck is “probably what we needed the least.”
The department’s old fire engine? The engine in it blew up about three months back, Marx said.
A new ambulance is arriving next week. The old one was a 1997 model with 50,000 miles.
“We are probably going to let it go to a more needy community than we are,” Marx said.
Until recently, De Beque was the needy community in Mesa County, with a population of around 500.
Now, the fire district is looking to buy three acres south of Interstate 70 for a new firehouse. The area, known as the Blue Stone Valley, is potentially the site of the next housing boom that would be associated with energy production in Mesa County.
The gas fields of the Piceance Basin are within the fire district service area.
The town growth plan estimates 3,000 to 10,000 more people by 2030.
Marx said the district is in negotiations with a couple property owners for a new fire station location. The existing firehouse is in the heart of De Beque on the north side of I-70 and is owned by the town.
Marx said he wants to have three full-time firefighters living at the station around the clock seven days a week.
The gusher of cash won’t last long because the amount the mill levy will bring to the district in 2011 will key off of 2009 production and value.
“So far, in as much as we can figure it, 2009 production value drops like a stone,” Gorman said.
Marx, who has been with the fire district for 36 years, serving two decades as its chief, said he realizes the riches won’t last.
“In 2011, it is going to go way down,” he said. “It is kind of a temporary shot in the arm to get us back on our feet.”