Fire district volunteers way down, hiring a must
By Aimee Eaton
In the last four years, the Crested Butte Fire Protection District has seen the number of calls received jump by almost 40 percent. At the same time, the number of people available to work at the mostly volunteer department has dwindled to the point that in order to cover all the shifts, firefighters and medics are coming into the upper valley from Delta.
It’s a situation that if left unmanaged will likely lead to a loss of services on both the emergency medical services (EMS) and the fire protection fronts. In turn, that loss could mean community members and visitors in the Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte area are left waiting for help during situations that could be life-threatening.
“Filling the call board with volunteers has become a challenge,” said Crested Butte fire protection district manager Mike Miller. “Services are being jeopardized and we’re needing to look at having more paid salary employees to be on call.”
Hiring employees is not simple, however, and in order to have the funds necessary to pay regular, reliable staff the fire district will put a property tax initiative on the November ballot. That tax will take the form of a 3.5 mill levy. Should the initiative pass, it would bring about $960,000 into the district annually. (The amount could be a little more or a little less, but the district will not know the final figure until this year’s assessed property valuation is completed by the county.)
The funds from the mill levy would be used primarily to pay for the additional personnel needed to maintain the high level of services the fire protection district has long been known for.
“We’re hoping to still have volunteers, but this would put our minds at ease knowing we had the financial resources available to hire personnel,” said Miller. “It is absolutely essential that we have ambulances and engines staffed when that call goes off.”
Miller said the district began seeing a drop in volunteers a few years ago, at about the same time there was also a dip in the county’s assessed property values. The situation has steadily worsened, with more people coming to town needing services but fewer people available to provide those sources and less money available to pay staff to fill the gaps.
In trying to shore up these needs, the district has been pulling from its cash reserve to fund personnel. It’s been an okay short-term fix, but should it continue to be a necessity, the district will have to begin making cuts to an already tight budget.
“It could get real ugly,” said Miller. “We have all these visitors in the summer so it’s busier, but all the extra money is collected in sales tax. We’re funded through a property tax and to some extent the revenue from our ambulance service, which is the fair market rate.”
The district had considered asking the community for an increase to the mill levy last year but held off due to concerns over timing and the potential annexation of land to Crested Butte, which could include property used for the construction of a new fire station and marshal’s office.
This year, said Miller, the district is out of time, and holding off is no longer an option.