BAYFIELD – Upper Pine River Fire Protection District managers expect to enter 2020 in a strong financial position, even paying off $800,000 in debt and fulfilling one of the district’s promises to voters.
In 2013, voters approved a mill levy increase for the 265-square-mile district in eastern La Plata and western Archuleta counties. The increase kept the district stable after fluctuations in the oil and gas market resulted in a $650,000 revenue cut over four years. Since then, district managers have worked to improve emergency services and district finances.
“I foresee that with (the fire chief’s) efforts to find additional revenue streams, the budget will continue to be balanced,” said Mickey Ramsey, district accountant. “Paying off this debt is a huge step forward.”
Upper Pine provides all-risk fire, rescue and emergency medical services for 15,000 to 30,000 people depending on the season. It serves Bayfield, Gem Village, Forest Lakes, Vallecito Lake and Lemon Reservoir.
By paying off the debt early, the district will save about $20,000 in interest costs. It also freed up $400,000 each year in its operating budget, which includes staff, utility, equipment and other costs that would otherwise be tied to debt payment. The debt was scheduled to be paid by December 2021.
The Upper Pine Board of Directors approved the 2020 budget last week after considering several financial strategies to pay the debt off early.
The board takes a conservative approach to finances, focusing on ample reserves and a thin budget, Ramsey said. The district’s reserve fund will be less than $2 million at the end of 2019.
Upper Pine has the highest fire district mill levy in La Plata County, according to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, at 12.42 mills. Others range from 9.9 mills for Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District to 3.52 for Los Pinos Fire Protection District.
With that tax increase, the district has provided 24-hour paramedic services and can pay off all the debt in its operating fund. The fire district also plans to put its 15-year-old firetruck fleet on a replacement schedule and replace a 40-year-old fire station.
Still, finances for fire districts can be unpredictable, and the drop in oil and gas property tax revenues had long-lasting impacts.
“We haven’t been able to maintain services with just tax revenue,” Ramsey said.
The district balances its budget every year but supplements its revenue through other sources, like grants and asset sales.
These sources are unpredictable. Grants aren’t guaranteed and can require matching funds from the district. Federal reimbursements for wildland firefighting costs such as equipment rentals and staff costs can sometimes create a surplus in the budget. However, the reimbursements depend on the wildfire season.
“You can’t count on that because it’s hit or miss,” said Roy Vreeland, deputy chief at Upper Pine. “It’s impossible to predict.”
Even fluctuations in the cost of gasoline, propane and diesel can affect the budget. Increasing operating costs can be difficult for districts on “fixed incomes,” he said.
Overall, Vreeland said he felt very good about the district’s finances going into 2020.
“The issues that we have are pretty much normal in our world,” he said.