Residents in the 365-square-mile Los Pinos Fire Protection District have a choice in the November elections: increase fire district property taxes to provide more money for the fire district or keep taxes at one of the lowest rates in the county.
Los Pinos originally planned to pose the tax increase question on the ballot during the May elections, but the board of directors withdrew the ballot measure because of the COVID-19 outbreak. However, Los Pinos’ troubling financial outlook continues. The board of directors voted to place the tax increase question on the November ballot in an effort to improve the situation.
“We are basically now working right on that line of savings, and then for the rest of the year, we’ll be working straight out of savings,” said Fire Chief Tony Harwig during a board of directors meeting Monday. “That’s kind of why we’re going for the mill levy increase.”
Staff members expect the district will run out of savings in two to four years if its expenses, already reduced, continue to outpace its income. More than half of the district’s income comes from property tax revenue.
Limited staffing also makes it difficult to respond to multiple emergency calls at the same time. Recently, two responders had to be quarantined for possible COVID-19 exposure. The district has also been down two responder positions, although one position was filled within the last two weeks and another will soon be filled.
Los Pinos tapped reserve first responders to fill the gap, but that solution has its own financial impacts. The district has saved on overtime costs, but it has used up 82% of its reservist budget, Harwig said.
In November, about 3,000 eligible voters within the district will decide whether to increase the mill levy from 3.52 mills, the lowest rate in the county, to 9.5 mills. The district settled on the 9.5 mills based on support from the community during a series of stakeholder meetings.
At a rate of 3.52 mills, voters pay about $25 per year for every $100,000 in assessed home value. If they approve the increase to 9.5 mills, their fire district property tax would increase to about $70 per year for every $100,000 in assessed home value.
Currently, the district responds to structure and wildland fires, power line issues, gas leaks, heart attacks, car crashes, flooded streets and other emergencies. It offers an advanced life-support ambulance service, which gives patients more medical care options during transit than more basic life support ambulance services.
If the mill levy remains at 3.52 mills, the district will have to cut its paramedic ambulance service and become an all-volunteer fire service.
At 9.5 mills, it would be able to keep the ambulance service, have two ambulances instead of one and add a volunteer program to staff more stations in the district.
In addition to increasing the mill levy, the ballot measure would protect the district from a possible 18% decrease in residential property taxes statewide. The Gallagher Amendment, which would trigger the decrease, is also on the November ballot for possible repeal.
If Gallagher is repealed, the extra provision in the Los Pinos ballot measure is “null and void,” Harwig said.
If Gallagher is not repealed, Los Pinos staff members said the district could lose between $18,000 to $50,000, depending on its mill levy, from an already tight budget. The provision in the Los Pinos ballot measure would protect the district from that loss, if approved by voters.