by Sandia Belgrade
The Baca Grande fire department and Baca Crestone Ambulance Service, run by the Baca Property Owners’ Association, are one of the very last remaining private homeowner association emergency operations in the state. That may be about to change.
Efforts are underway to create a combined fire district here that would put us in alignment with the rest of Colorado, which has a total of 1,869 active Title 32 Districts and 253 fire protection districts. Property owners may well have a chance to vote on this proposal in November if it is politically or financially possible this year. The new district would combine the Baca Grande and Crestone Fire Departments, which the firefighters heartily support.
The Crestone Fire Department is currently part of the Northern Saguache County Fire Protecion District (NSCFPD).
Many people volunteer on both the Baca and Crestone Fire Departments and also on the ambulance service. The new fire district plans to include the Baca-Crestone Ambulance Service as soon as possible.
A district composed of both the Crestone and Baca Fire Department will have many advantages: it will improve emergency communications; it will also provide for funding opportunities not available to us now; reduce operational costs through combined insurance, training, etc; and reduce liability exposure for members of the POA and the volunteers.
Special districts date back to the early mining camps in Colorado. As Colorado grew, towns and regions/areas sought mechanisms to join together to provide essential services. Special districts were first authorized in 1949 under Title 32 Article 1 of the Colorado Revised Statutes. These “special districts” have been instrumental in creating a public infrastructure to meet the increasing demands of a growing state. They often cross the boundary lines of towns and villages and play a vital role in providing many basic services such as fire, rescue and ambulance services, structured in a similar way to Baca Water and Sanitation.
Districts possess fiscal and administrative autonomy and are supported primarily by taxes, usually a property tax, but sometimes an excise or sales tax, for the services
that they provide.
The Town of Crestone Mayor, Ralph Abrams, and Crestone Fire Chief Warren Stephen initiated discussions with the Northern Saguache County Fire Protection District Board in January. The NSCFPD Board was receptive to the idea and asked for more information which was provided to them in March.
The proposed Baca Crestone Fire Protection District is planned to include the area between Road AA to the north; west of Road 65 T at the Section line; to the east to the Rio Grande National Forest; and south to the Wildlife Preserve and the Sand Dunes. This area was chosen by evaluating which fire department could get there first—the closest responders. Jackie Stephens, the County Assessor, has been very helpful in working on the boundaries, maps and assessment estimates. When the Baca Crestone Ambulance Service becomes part of the district, they plan to continue their arrangement with the Northern Saguache Ambulance Service to provide services beyond jurisdictional boundaries—like they do now—and that will include the Moffat region.
Safety & liability protection
With all the issues involved it’s important to separate the wheat from the chaff. The main consideration is safety and avoiding delays. To call for help from the fire department the Baca residents call 911; but in Crestone the calls go through the Sheriff’s Office. This can result in response delays—and a quick response is critical for community.
The issue of liability is also paramount. In our present situation, a catastrophic event could have momentous repercussions for property owners in the Baca because there is limited liability protection provided by insurance—the fire fighters and EMTs themselves could even be sued, and the POA property owners could be assessed if the award is greater than the insurance coverage.
This is an unacceptable burden for devoted volunteers who put their lives in jeopardy. However, a fire district has governmental immunity protection.
Another benefit of creating the fire district is that it will expand fire protection to include all of Crestone and the Baca, and will also include areas such as the town houses, spiritual centers, White Eagle Village, and the Colorado College campus, areas that are not now in a fire protection district. Property owners will have the option of asking the County Commissioners to exclude their property from the proposed district if they have a good reason to do so.
POA property owners pay for the Baca Grande Fire Department and the Ambulance Service through membership dues, which are not tax deductible. Instead there will be a mil levy, which is tax-deductible to property owners. Once the County Assessor has determined the exact boundary definitions she can say what the tax base will be and what the mil levy will look like. It is projected to be the same as the current mil levy that Northern Saguache Fire District is receiving. An example: for property owners in the Baca under the proposed fire district, for every $100,000 of assessed valuation, homeowners would pay a similar amount of tax. Check your tax bill to find your “assessed valuation”. The POA property owners would take on a mil levy in exchange for less liability exposure, with the Board of Directors deciding whether to lower dues for services they would no longer be providing. Fire protection costs will also be lowered through combined insurance policies and administration. Many people will be paying about the same amount as they are now for emergency servies.
The formation of a special district begins with a service plan and a process established by State law. The service plan includes a description of the area to be included, the proposed facilities and services to be provided, and a financial plan for the transfer of land and facilities necessary to provide the district services. The District Formation Committee, with members from both Crestone and the Baca, has dedicated many hours to researching the process and details of formation. Their efforts have built a lot of momentum in moving the service plan along and many of the required legal documents have been drafted. The financial information is still in the preliminary stage. The service plan will be a document which all parties will review. The plan must be approved by the Board of County Commissioners. All property owners in the service area will receive notice of a public hearing on this issue. Once the plan is approved, a petition must be signed by 30% or 200 tax-paying electors of the proposed district.
What special considerations does the POA have?
The intention of the POA Board is to divest themselves, but they are still in an information-gathering stage. They feel a responsibility to represent the property owners and put the matter of a district to a vote of the POA membership. For one thing, the POA has to decide about the transfer of assets such as the trucks, equipment, fire house and the Laurel Road future-fire house site to the new district. The Property Owners’ Association has a right to convey assets with a membership vote. It’s important for property owners to realize they will not lose the equipment. The district will serve the same area with the same equipment as before due to mutual aid agreements. It will belong to everyone, so there’s no loss. We are the district.
The ultimate benefit of creating this district is improved emergency services, a better working arrangement for all the volunteers and less liability exposure. It will in the long run help unite two communities to provide better emergency services under the protective umbrella of one fire district. As Warren Stephen said, “We all stand to benefit.”