Small fire districts expect less cash in 2014

A 15.3 percent drop year-over-year in the assessed value of property in Mesa County will mean smaller bills for many taxpayers next year but less revenue to spread among the county’s fire protection districts.

A dozen fire protection districts receive funding from Mesa County property tax revenue. Although those districts will not know how much property tax revenue they will receive in 2014 until next month, many are already bracing for budget shortfalls.

Gateway Chief David Anderson said starting with a $53,000 budget means even slight percentage declines in property values can have a big impact on his all-volunteer department’s budget.

“It takes a big bite out of what we have,” he said.

State grants helped Gateway’s fire department update its emergency medical services equipment in recent years. But other equipment is aging, like a pumper from 1985.

Like many small, rural fire districts, Gateway and the Lower Valley Fire Protection District have relied on grants for bigger projects. A Department of Local Affairs grant will make possible a two-story addition for the back of the Lower Valley fire station to house sleeping quarters. Volunteers who live far from the station currently have to sleep on couches or cots if they spend the night at the station.

Lower Valley Fire Chief Frank 
Cavaliere said his district is hoping to keep their 2014 budget flat at best. He said a list of capital projects would probably be the first place to cut if revenue is down. With 10 full-time employees and 24 volunteers, he hopes personnel would be the last place to trim the budget.

“With our call volume, we’re pretty much bare the way we’re running right now,” he said. “We’ve been trying to make do as much as possible. The firefighters have been adaptable.”

Central Orchard Mesa Fire Chief Dave Gitchell said residents shouldn’t assume smaller budgets mean stunted service. For him, it means trying to keep operation costs light, seeking grants or saving for big purchases, and looking for donated trucks, like the ones Central Orchard Mesa got from the Rifle and Glade Park fire departments.

“Things are already tight and it’s going to get tighter, but we’ll keep doing our job,” Gitchell said.

Even if citizens don’t notice changes, though, fire departments will.

De Beque Fire Chief Nick Marx said his department wants to build a fire station because they are renting their current station from the Town of De Beque and “it’s not near adequate for what we have.”

But the district’s seven full-time employees and five volunteers may have to wait.

East Orchard Mesa Fire Chief Rob Talbott said the department needs six new air packs that go on the back of firefighters when they go into a smoke-filled building, but they have to “save quite a bit of money for those.”

Richard Rupp, chief of Palisade’s rural and town fire departments, has seen budgets decline for the past four or five years, he said. “You just can’t buy equipment sometimes,” he said. “We have some 20- to 25-year-old equipment. It’s doing fine, we just have to spend more on maintenance.”

Some departments are expecting less of a hit than others. Plateau Valley Fire Chief Mike Lockwood said he expects to be buoyed by oil and gas activity in his area providing more revenue for the district.

Clifton Fire Chief Kent Holsan expects lower revenue next year, but not as low as it could be. Taxpayers there approved a mill levy increase in 2008.

“That’s the only thing that’s been saving us,” Holsan said. “Otherwise, we’d be cutting services.”


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