A battle for the bucks

Residents: Other projects could suffer because of a fire-district tax hike

Future community projects could outweigh the Craig Rural Fire District's need for a mill levy increase, two Craig residents who attended Monday night's fire district meeting, said.

Linda Booker and Ted Wheeler listened to a presentation by Craig Fire Chief Roy Mason on the Craig Rural Fire District's proposed mill levy increase.

The fire district is asking for an increase of $550,000 annually to pay for operations, maintenance, future expansion, including full-time staff and housing, and a training center.

The Craig Rural Fire District currently operates on an annual budget of $420,000, Mason said.

Residents within the 120-sqare-mile fire district will vote May 7.

While both Booker and Wheeler expressed support for the work and professionalism of Craig Fire/Rescue, the presentation did not lead to a final decision for either of them.

"I don't know where I'm at (on the increase) yet," Wheeler said. "I'm concerned, it's a tough situation. (The fire district's needs) are definitely something that's coming, but we've got the hospital coming next and then other projects after that where do we draw the line? There's money out there, it just depends on who gets their hand in first.

"The public I've talked to are not in favor of (a mill levy increase for the fire district)."

Booker said she also is concerned with the amount of large-scale projects different sectors of the community are planning. She said she thinks the timing is not right for an increase for the Craig Rural Fire District.

"I'm undecided right now, but I think the timing's wrong," she said. "I'm not saying it can't happen down the line, but I don't see enough of a concrete plan. What the needs are should be more clear right now there are too many 'what ifs' to know what is really needed.

"I don't think (the increase) should happen now just to do a training center. It seems like that is the main thing being pushed now, and that's a real problem. When the needs (of the fire district) are clearer would probably be a better time to deal with it."

Booker said the push by The Memorial Hospital for a new facility, the Moffat County government's want for a convention center, the city of Craig plan for a recreation district along with the fire district's call for an increase is too much for the community to handle all at once.

"We've got five or six major projects that are being looked at right now," she said. "I'm on the library board and in the next three to five years the library will be broke and that's another thing that should be looked at."

Mason's presentation focused on the future needs of the Craig Rural Fire District. These needs include paying for operating a fire department on a budget that has been shrinking by $20,000 to $30,000 each year over the last several years because of devaluation of tax properties.

Mason said the increase to an annual budget of $970,000 would allow the department continue providing services to the community while expanding and adapting to a growing city.

Mason said projections made by the fire district show that over the next 15 years the department will face a series of vehicle replacement needs, the phasing in of full-time employees and the necessary housing for them, and a possibly mandated requirement for a fire marshal. These issues would be in addition to the rising costs of equipment replacement and maintenance, and education and training for firefighters along with a drop in volunteerism. The money would also finance the building of a training center.

Fourteen percent of the mill levy increase, or slightly more than $60,000 annually, would be dedicated toward the lease-purchase arrangement for the training center. After the completion of the 15-year payment plan, those funds would roll into the fire district's regular budget.

There are training centers in Hayden and Rangely. But the Hayden center is not certified and is limited in training opportunities and the Rangely facility is too far away for Craig firefighters to train as a unit, Mason said.

Mason said full-time staff is needed because volunteering for the district is becoming more difficult.

"The demand on a person's time is very high," Mason said. "And not every firefighter can leave his job, so some full-time staff is a real possibility.

Craig Fire/Rescue responds to an average of 15 calls per month with an average of 10 firefighters per call.

Mason said the impact of the mill levy increase on an average household would double the cost of the present mill levy.

"Right now, we take about $20 a year from every household in our district," Mason said. "This increase, which is needed for us to be able to continue being the trained, professional team we now serve the community with, would double that to about $45."

If the fire district does not see an increase to its budget, operations, maintenance and vehicle and equipment replacement alone will put the district at approximately $6.4 million in debt over the next 15 years, Mason said.

The next presentation by the Craig Rural Fire District concerning the proposed mill levy increase will be at 7 p.m. on April 29, at the fire station at 419 Yampa Ave.

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