by Matie Belle Lakish
Local residents and registered Colorado voters will have another opportunity to vote to fund the Crestone Emergency Services District (CrESD) via a mill levy. The mail-in ballots will be sent to registered voters between April 16 and 22, and must be mailed back and received by May 8 at 7pm.
There will be no polling places for this election, but if a voter wishes to turn in their ballot in person, they may do so by bringing their completed ballot to the Crestone Community Center (old school house) on May 8, from 7am to 7pm. Election Official Linda Stagner will also be available to receive them between 1 and 3pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays from April 17 through May 3. She will be at 110 N. Alder, which is the building that has the Well Knit Café and the clinic. The election office is on the side of the building. Stagner will also answer any questions about the ballot process, or help citizens who did not get a ballot but feel they should have received one. She will not be able to answer any questions about the issues or the content of the ballot.
A previous election held on November 1, 2011 approved two of the three ballot provisions pertaining to the new Crestone Fire Protection District, doing business as Crestone Emergency Services District. The formation of the new district was approved 281 to 257, and the de-brucing measure, which allows the district to carry over funds from one year to the next, passed 271 to 253. However, the funding measure failed by 18 votes. All three measures were approved by local voters, but absentee Colorado landowners did not approve the funding despite the fact that most lot owners will pay less under the funding measure than they currently pay for these services with POA dues.
What it will cost property owners in various parts of the service area:
Town of Crestone: Everyone who currently owns property in Crestone is paying taxes for fire and ambulance to Northern Saguache Fire District and Northern Saguache Ambulance District of 15.57 mills. At 16 mills, CrESD would cost Crestone residents from $3 to about $12 a year more, or between 25¢ and $1 more per month than they are currently paying. Service is predicted to be faster and more efficient as communication and response time will be streamlined as a result of the new district.
Baca Grande undeveloped lots: Single lot owners will be expected to pay less for service than they currently pay for emergency services through the POA. Since tax rates are based on value of property, and most lots are valued at less than houses, lot owners will likely pay between $25 and $69 per lot, depending upon assessed valuation. This is less than the approximately $70 per lot that they now pay the POA. Most absentee owners own empty lots. Lot owners with multiple lots can multiply their savings.
Baca Grande developed lots: Single homeowners living in the Baca will pay based on the value of their home and lot. Residential property is taxed at a lower rate than lots, so that the tax burden on single-dwelling homeowners will be more, but not a lot more, than lot owners. Currently, a home with an assessed valuation of $100,000 will pay $127.36, while one with an assessed valuation of $150,000 will pay $191.04. After subtracting the current POA portion of $70, these homeowners face an increase of about $57 to $121 per year. This increase will help offset the extra expenses and dangers associated with fighting fires in houses, and the increased need for ambulance service experienced by those who live in homes vs. empty lots.
Baca Grande large homeowners with a home on multiple consolidated lots: This small group will pay more based on the assessed valuation of their properties. For instance, a home on multiple consolidated lots with an assessed valuation of $300,000 will pay $382, or about $32 per month. Generally, larger, more expensive homes require more complex firefighting strategies than lots or smaller homes and present more dangers to firefighters. This group currently pays only one $70 POA fee, and is heavily subsidized by single lot owners.
Baca Grande property owners with rentals and large consolidated properties. The smallest group, primarily investors, will pay the most. What they pay will be based on the Assessed Valuation of their accumulated properties, just as all other owners will be. At present this group gets the most benefit from the current system. For instance, a property owner with one home and nine investment properties on consolidated lots currently pays $540 in POA dues for these services, but if each home is valued at $125,000, the owner would pay $1538 in taxes to CrESD. This amount would pay for servicing all 10 of the developed properties and the residents who live in the houses. A very small group of owners fall into this category.
Calculate your own
Homeowners can calculate their own tax responsibility by looking on their County Tax statement for the Assessed Valuation of their property. Often this is lower than the market value of the property. Multiply the Assessed Valuation X .0796 for homes, or .29 for lots or businesses. Next multiply this times the mill levy rate of .016. The result is the new tax responsibility. Next, for POA residents, subtract $70 for the current POA dues for each property. The result will be approximately the new responsibility for fire and ambulance service under CrESD.
For example: (Note: AV = Assessed Valuation of property as stated on the annual County tax statement)
Baca Lot with AV of $10,000 X .29 X .016 = $46.40 – $70 = $23.60 less than present
Baca Lot with AV of $15,000 X .29 X .016 = $69.60 – $70 = $.40 less than present
Baca Home with AV of $125,000 X .0796 X .016 = $159.20 – $70 = $89.20, or $7.44/month
Casita Park Home with AV of $60,000 X .0796 X .016 = $76.41 – $70 = $6.41, or $0.53/month
Crestone Home with AV of $125,000 X .0796 X .016 = $159.20 – $125,000 X .01557 = $154.92.  Subtract $154.92 (old tax) from $159.20 (new tax) = $4.28 or $0.36/month
Out of almost 5,000 properties in the POA, 83% will pay less than $100 per year, 71% will pay less than $60, 2% will pay over $300.
Budget for CrESD
The POA 2011 operational budget for fire and ambulance service was $338,842. CrESD’s 2012 operational budget for fire and ambulance service is $332,857. This is $5,985 less than last year. Opponents have claimed that fire fighters and ambulance personnel would no longer be volunteers, and the costs would skyrocket. No major changes are planned.
Opponents of the new district have said there is no need for an independent emergency services district, that the Baca Grande Property Owners Association has been doing a fine job of managing fire and ambulance protection for property owners, and that to transfer the POA’s fire trucks and ambulances to a new public district that is tax-funded represents a violation of Baca owners’ property rights. They have said a transfer of equipment to the new district is an “asset give-away” and has not been approved by a 67% vote of the Baca property owners. Property owners did vote in favor of an asset transfer, but there wasn’t the required number of property owners voting in that election. Other arrangements are being explored between the POA and district, pending passage of the mil levy vote.
If approved, the equipment would be used by the same EMS volunteers in the same way to provide emergency services to the POA land owners living in the Baca, as well as to other property owners living in Crestone and the surrounding areas. The Crestone Fire Department equipment will also become part of the district’s resources.
Mutual Aid
POA Fire and Ambulance Departments have historically responded to emergencies in other communities through Mutual Aid Agreements, and other departments have responded with assistance when the POA fire department has needed it. However, those Mutual Aid Agreements are endangered, as new insurance requirements have come into play, and other valley districts have made it clear they prefer to have agreements with public fire districts, rather than private, corporate entities.
Emergency personel have said communication is a key problem with multiple districts, especially since the different departments use different dispatch systems.  Volunteers wear multiple radios and sometimes respond to multiple messages at one time. This is a serious safety issue, they say, both for volunteers and for residents. With a unified district, there will be no confusion about where a fire or medical victim is located, or whose jurisdiction is involved.
Liability for emergency personnel and POA property owners is also an issue. Private, corporate fire districts, such as the POA fire department, do not have governmental immunity. That means that both fire and ambulance volunteers and POA homeowners are subject to lawsuits by someone whose lives or property are damaged in an emergency.
Volunteers for a fully funded public emergency services district, fire, ambulance, and search and rescue would be covered by governmental immunity in the event of a catastrophic event, and homeowners’ liability would be limited.
Homeowners may see a reduction in their homeowner’s insurance, as most insurance companies prefer public districts rather than private fire districts. The Baca POA is one of only a few private fire protection districts in the state.
Creators of the fire district have said that funding for the department will be more stable, as the 16 mill levy can not change without voter approval. That means both homeowners and the district will know what CrESD’s budget will be. Currently, the POA board, as a private corporate entity, can change the funding from year to year.
CrESD has a board of directors whose only responsibility is to provide emergency services, and which is elected by all the registered voters who live in the district. Any change in the mill levy for the district would require approval by a majority of local registered voters plus homeowners and property owners who live in Colorado. It would require another public election such as the one coming up on May 8. It cannot be changed by the board of directors.
Grants & pensions
Public districts are more likely to receive grants for funding from public sources, such as governmental entities that provide equipment and training. Although much of the current equipment belonging to the Crestone and Baca Fire Departments and the Baca Ambulance Department was financed or subsidized by public grants, there are limits to what the Baca is eligible for as a private department.
Emergency personnel would also be covered by the state firefighters’ pension fund, should they choose to volunteer for twenty or more years. Although the Town of Crestone firefighters have had this pension for many years, because Crestone, as part of Northern Saguache Fire Protection District, has this plan, Baca firefighters who have served for many years do not.
Voters should pay special attention to their mail in the middle of April when the ballots will be mailed. If voters have further questions about the voting process, Election Official Linda Stagner is available by phone at 256-4385.