Local Fire & EMS Agencies Confront Funding Hurdles – Departments Asked to Cover More Service Areas with Less Revenue – Bob Volpe

The two main emergency service providers in the area, the Ute Pass Regional Ambulance District and Northeast Teller County Fire Protection District, are facing serious financial challenges with no immediate relief in sight.

The lack of funding could result in higher home owner insurance rates and an increase in property taxes, or slower response times for emergency situations.

Ninety-nine percent of the agencies’ revenue is derived from property taxes generated by the county. The other 1 percent comes from specific ownership tax. That is a tax levied on the purchase of large items like new cars, fifth wheel campers, etc.

In 2012, the Northeast Teller County Fire Protection District, NTCFPD, asked voters for an increase in their mill levy. The measure passed the tax increase and the district used the extra revenue to help keep pace with rising costs, aging equipment and a staff shortage.

This funding situation has also impacted the local ambulance district, now called the Ute Pass Regional Health Service District (UPRHSD).

In a letter dated March 24, 2016 from the Ute Pass Regional Health Service District’s CEO, Timothy Dienst, to the Woodland Park Downtown Development Authority (DDA), Dienst asked for the district to be paid back and/or exempted from all future and current tax increment financing (TIF) agreements.

A TIF agreement is an incentive tool that is used to encourage economic development projects and infrastructure improvements in the DDA district. These agreements are offered over a period of time and they usually involve limiting or waiving tax obligations for a certain period. These incentives, which aren’t permitted by the city government, encourage new businesses, developments, residential projects and expansions inside the DDA district. They are approved by the DDA board.

In his letter, Dienst stated, “It is important that UPRHSD continue to provide quality and reliable service when needed. The ambulance services provided to residents and visitors of the city of Woodland Park by UPRHSD, represent the second most utilized public service resource response after law enforcement. The revenues returned by the DDA to UPRHSD will assist in ongoing provision of these essential services and will better allow UPRHSD to fund enhanced services to match the needs of our growing city.”

Their plight of the ambulance district worsened when voters opted not to approve a sales tax increase for UPRHSD in 2014.

Jim Ignatius, board chairman of the Northeast Teller County Fire Protection District (NETCFPD), sent a similar letter to the DDA, dated August 11, 2016, asking to be exempted from future TIF agreements and to be refunded revenue from existing TIF agreements.

In his letter Ignatius said, “The amount of annual revenue lost due to TIF agreements comes at a tremendous cost and risk to NETCFPD as well as all of you and over 13,000 citizens within our district. There has been an additional 132,089 square feet of buildings to protect within the DDA’s district without any additional revenue to hire personal equipment and training to mitigate that risk. If we add the Charis complex that number exceeds 750,000 additional square feet of improvements since 2000 with no additional revenue. We are currently loosing over $450,000 annually due to the new construction. That would fund 7.5 additional fire fighters.”

Ignatius said the special districts never received an official response to their letters, but DDA Treasurer Tanner Coy said he spoke to Dienst about his letter and that NETCFPD Fire Chief Tyler Lambert was at a DDA meeting when this issue was discussed in a public session.

For their part, the DDA has confronted serious financial challenges due to its operations in the past. Some on the city council, including Mayor Pro Tem Carrol Harvey, are crying foul regarding the repayment of a $1 million loan the DDA secured from the city in 2007.

Because of the DDA’s current financial situation, the DDA decided to table the TIF agreement issue, and specifically the requests by the emergency service and fire districts, until 2017.

The DDA now operates without a paid staff, and the board members are working without pay to try to save money and to get back on solid financial ground “The DDA is saving $60,000 a year by not hiring any paid staff,” explained Coy. “We are applying that to our debt. That being said, this doesn’t mean that the DDA won’t exempt those districts from future TIF deals, as we did with Trail Ridge apartments.”

Coy continued, “Even though the DDA has no official agreement with fire or ambulance to exempt them, we still exempted them (fire and ambulance districts) from the Trail Ridge agreement. The DDA still has the option to do that on a case by case basis.”

The DDA recognizes that projects like Trail Ridge are a much greater risk for impact on ambulance and fire district services, because of the high density of people residing in that type of project than other projects like Woodland Hardware.

Coy explained, “The reason the DDA does not want to commit to exempting the districts from all future TIF agreements is that it becomes a requirement. It affects all future agreements, whether it is warranted or not.”

To alleviate concerns that future TIF agreements could further hurt the fire and ambulance departments, Coy noted that DDA district has no intention to expand its boundaries.

Coy stressed that the DDA understands the important role that emergency service districts play in protecting the downtown district. “The DDA recognizes the tremendous value, and the necessity of maintaining healthy fire and ambulance districts in our community. We do not question the need to take care of those organizations and we wish to support them in any way possible. We’re just trying to do it in the most responsible way we can,” he explained.

The Charis Bible College Impact

The addition of the Charis Bible College, a key part of the Andrew Wommack Ministries (AWM) project in Woodland Park, has also been of particular concern for both UPRHSD and NETCFPD. Some citizens have raised questions over the fact that these agencies are serving an additional large area, without the benefits of getting extra tax revenue for their services. AWM, an international, religious organization, is a tax-exempt institution.

The fear is that with an additional 750,000 square feet to protect, NETCFPD would be stretched beyond their capability to respond to other incidents, should a serious incident break out at the bible college

Teller County Assessor Betty Clark-Wine noted that as of 2015, AWM property in Woodland was valued at $16.6 million. That valuation would have resulted in $63,557.78 going to NETCFPD and $19,238.02 going to Ute Pass Regional Health annually, if the bible college didn’t have a tax-exempt status.

According to Ignatius, “It’s not the college, it’s the magnitude of the property’s additional 750,000 square feet that is the issue.” He went on to say, “If an incident should happen at Charis, we would send the entire on staff fire department plus an engine and a truck, but 82 square miles would have no coverage whatsoever. That is the concern that residents have right now.”

According to Lambert, the department has already responded to a number of calls at Charis.

Charis Bible College, though, has tried to play an active role in helping out these emergency service agencies as best they can.

In late September, the college held a fund raising event expressly for the EMS and fire protection districts. They sponsored, hosted and marketed the fund-raiser. The event raised $55,712 that was split 50/50 between UPRHSD and NETCFP. The event was well-received by community leaders.

Both agencies also were thankful for the generous effort by Charis. Above and beyond the money raised for the districts, Charis also donated nearly 20 state-of-the art protective law enforcement kits, including a full realm of body armor, gas masks, helmets and many protective Shield 616 items, to the sheriff’s department and the police departments of Woodland Park and Cripple Creek. These collectively cost thousands of dollars.

NETCFPD is looking at using their share of the benefit money to purchase additional breathing apparatus for fire fighters. These apparatus cost about $8,500 each.

Charis officials also said they would be willing to have a benefit dinner or some other form of fund raising event on an annual basis to help raise money for the districts.

Furthermore, in regards to Charis, Andrew Wommack, founder of AWM, has a considerable interest in protecting the college. Since the project has gone forward, the college has done significant fire mitigation on the property. They have installed a state of the art fire suppression system, and maintain a water truck on the site.

In hindsight, some former and current elected leaders now say they should have imposed some type of emergency service-related impact fee, when the Wommacks development project was first proposed, or considered for annexation. But at the time, city officials believed this would have created a bad precedent, impacting other current and future developments in Woodland Park. Also, city officials cited the huge amount of potential sales tax revenue that would occur from the bible college, and mentioned the mega development investment in the community, exceeding the $100 million mark. Both city officials and leaders of the Woodland Park Chamber of Commerce have frequently praised the project, which is one of the few major developments in the history of Woodland Park that constructed its facilities right on schedule.

Funding pitfalls

But fund-raising is difficult for the fire and EMS agencies. Since their income is derived solely from property taxes, it leaves them in a vulnerable position. When times are good and property values go up, they reap the benefits, but when property values decline so does their revenue.

NETCFPD and UPRHSD are restricted by law when it comes to their source of revenue. Their sole source of revenue is property tax monies.

According to figures from Clark-Wine, in 2012 property tax revenue applied to NETCFPD was $2.3 million and the mill levy was 14.867. In 2013 the mill levy was lowered to 11.562 and their revenue fell to $1.7 million. In 2014 the mill levy was 13.182 resulting in $1.96 million for the district. In 2015 the mill levy remained at 13.182 resulting in $2.1 million in revenue for NETCFPD. Preliminary expectations for the year 2016 show NETCFPD’s revenue will be in the neighborhood of $2.13 million, and the mill levy will remain the same.

As a result, the district’s revenue is often at the mercy of trending economic conditions, voter approved tax hikes and growth.

To add more fuel to the firestorm of concern, the Insurance Service Office (ISO) may lower the district’s rating. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the highest, a rating of 5 means the department is within 5 miles of a fire hydrant and 1,000 feet of an approved water system.

The ISO is now reviewing NETCFPD’s status. ISO reviews usually go back three years. According to. Ignatius, the ISO base their review on call volume, construction permits, water supply, training, apparatus, and the number of people sent on calls.

In 2010, ISO told NETCFPD in order to maintain their current rating they would have to send 7.5 fire fighters on a call, such as smoke in a building or structure fire. At this time NETCFPD is sending 5 fire fighters 84 percent of the time. Right now NETCFPD’s ISO rating is 5.

These ISO ratings could impact average home owner insurance rates. Insurance companies determine the rates they charged based on ISO ratings. If an agency’s ratings is above 5, ISO officials consider that a higher risk and set rates accordingly.

To maintain a rating of 5 or better, the department may be forced to ask taxpayers for another mill levy increase.

As for other potential tax revenue from outside the local area, Ignatius noted, “Yes, but good luck with that. That would be a multi-year-long process if it were to even pass at all.”

Ignatius, who previously served as a Teller County commissioner for about 10 years, explained the reason for his skepticism. “Colorado Municipal League wants to protect the taxing revenue. When the state legislature says they want to allow special districts to collect other sources of revenue, more than likely you’re going to be stepping on some other entities’ revenue. Of course they are going to fight to keep their share of that revenue.”

The prospects of receiving more gaming-related revenue could face the same road blocks, according to the former commissioner. Since 2003 revenue from gaming has fluctuated greatly and the number of entities requesting funds has more than tripled.

Ignatius lamented, “If you want more revenue, your avenue to go to receive that revenue would be to ‘go ask the voters.’ There are just too many fingers in the pot that everyone wants to protect their source. So success in asking for additional revenue from other existing tax sources in next to nil.”

The bottom line is that the only recourse the districts have for an increase in funding hinges on raising their mill levy, or to become exempt from future TIF agreements, secured by the DDA. With this funding scenario, department leaders say this could create the real possibility of higher home owner insurance rates, or higher property taxes for many local residents.