Bare bones help

A confluence of money-robbing factors has diminished the Clifton Fire Protection District’s ability to cover the cost of providing basic services and prepare for future needs.

Making the case for a 2.25 mill increase is easy enough, but the special district is asking voters to say yes at a time when both the school district and the county are also floating ballot questions for more funding in November.

Clifton residents owe it to themselves to understand why the district would brave the odds to secure more funding in a crowded field and what happens if they don’t support the measure.

As one might expect, Clifton Fire has put forth a modest request. The increase would bring the mill rate to 11.552 mills. That’s an extra $1.30 a month on a home with a valuation of $175,000, or $16 a year added to a residential property tax bill.

The district estimates it would receive about $410,000 for operational costs and capital improvement projects if the mill increase passes, which is the minimum the district needs to satisfy its demands, Fire Chief Charles Balke told the Sentinel’s editorial board Wednesday.

Demand for service is at an all-time high, due mainly to medical calls. Unfortunately, too many people call 911 for minor illnesses and ambulance trips to the emergency room thinking those costs are covered by Medicaid. The district bills $800,000 a year on such calls, but only gets reimbursed at a 40 percent clip.

Last year, the department responded to 3,239 calls for service, 2,500 of which were classified as medical emergencies. The total call volume represents a 26 percent increase from 2008, when the last mill levy increase was approved by voters. This year, calls for service are about 15 percent greater than last year’s pace.

But revenue has dipped due for a variety of reasons. Property values in the district are flat and impacts from the state’s Gallagher Amendment have resulted in a decrease of $114,000 in the amount of tax revenues that can be collected under the current mill levy. When the city of Grand Junction decided to provide emergency services to areas annexed under the Persigo sewer agreeement, the Clifton agency lost another $180,000.

Without a way to bump up revenues, the department will have to consider reductions in services and staffing. Eventually the department might have to forgo fire station staffing altogether and revert to a system where volunteers respond to the station for emergency calls, which may lengthen response times. If those response times increase substantially, it could hurt the department’s community fire insurance rating, which could hike up rates homeowners pay for insurance coverage.

This worst-case scenario eliminates improvements, like a substation, better wages to retain part-time firefighters and equipment upgrades to maintain minimum standards.

The agency serves an estimated 33,000 residents in an area measuring about 11 square miles. The call volume the department is experiencing should have two fully staffed stations, according to industry standards, Balke said.

Balke plans to host open houses to make the argument for a the mill increase. We urge Clifton residents to get informed on the special district’s needs, which are legitimate and growing.

“Without the help of our community, we’re not going to remain financially sustainable,” Balke said.

Clifton Fire needs bare bones help that can only come from Clifton residents.


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