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  • Dylan Anderson

Could consolidating Steamboat Fire with surrounding fire district lead to long-sought financial sustainability?

Council members Steve Muntean and Bryan Swintek presented a concept on Tuesday that would see the city’s fire operations merge with the Steamboat Springs Fire Protection District.

At a meeting about fiscal sustainability in November 2020, Steamboat Springs City Manager Gary Suiter told council that city finances had been too reliant on sales taxes since 1979, when voters jettisoned the city’s property taxes in favor of a 4% sales tax.

While popular politically, Suiter said relying on sales taxes as much as the city does creates additional risk and is a less stable financial model long-term.

The presentation nearly four years ago kicked off an effort to diversify the city’s revenue sources. That effort ended in July 2021 with council abandoning a plan to ask voters for a 2-mill property tax for parks and recreation. The council at the time feared a new tax would be rejected by voters as city coffers were flush with record sales tax revenues collected during the pandemic.

“Four years later, we are in a position much worse than we were four years ago,” said Council member Steve Muntean on Tuesday, reflecting on Suiter’s presentation. “As we think about the future, as we think about the budget that we’re going to be working on for 2025, there’s going to be a lot of trade offs that we are going to have to make.”

Steamboat Springs general fund expenditures have increased 10-fold in the last few decades, according to data provided to council as part of Tuesday’s discussion. What was once $5.1 million in general fund expenditures in 1988 has increased to $55 million in 2024. Departments like fire and transit have seen their share of the budget increase significantly over the last 40 years. Fire and EMS represented just 2% of the total city budget in 1988. In 2024 it accounts for 8%. Transit went from 1% to 13% over that same span.

Muntean and Council member Bryan Swintek have placed a special focus on fiscal sustainability since they were elected last fall and on Tuesday presented a concept that would consolidate Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue with the Steamboat Springs Fire Protection District. The idea would lead to an increased property tax for fire and EMS service within the city limits while saving $2 million to $3 million in the city’s general fund.

“Essentially, this would fully fund our fire department,” Swintek said. “Fire [service] is a valuable thing. … It is expensive, but it is a worthwhile asset, so it’s easier to explain from a political point of view.”

Caption: Steamboat Springs City Council member Bryan Swintek, near, and Steven Muntean present a plan to the rest of council that hopes to give the city better financial sustainability on Tuesday, July 9. (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle)

While council has explored other concepts for a property tax before, Swintek argued fire service made sense because the city currently has no plan to pay for a new Mountain Fire Station or to build a West Steamboat Fire Station. Together, these projects could cost from $48 million to $55 million based on city estimates.

Providing fire service also sees a roughly 10% cost increase annual, Swintek said. Numbers presented to Council in December show the operating budget for the fire department as a whole is expected to grow from $7.5 million in 2023 to $12.6 million by 2029.

District consolidation has been talked about for years already and Steamboat Fire Chief Chuck Cerasoli said he believes it is the best direction for the community.

“We’ve been talking about [consolidation] for as long as I’ve known how a fire department is run and I think it is the best route to go for the community regardless of the funding,” Cerasoli said. “Municipal departments are sort of rare in the state. Most of the fire departments in the state and now most of the country are now fire districts.”

A second option would keep the fire department under the city’s purview, but propose two sales taxes that would support fire operations and commit funding to the city’s Mountain Fire Station. A state law passed this past session also now allows fire districts to assess sales taxes, which could be used in tandem with a property tax, Cerasoli said.

Swintek said in his view, a sales tax would likely be less attractive, as Steamboat already has a relatively high sales tax. While so-called ‘taxing the man behind the tree’ is popular politically, he stressed that there is only so far they can push tourists before it starts to have a negative effect.

“We are taxing our visitors a lot,” Swintek said. “It’s popular to tax the other person, but would that have unintended consequences that disincentivizes tourism, thereby decreasing our sales tax, thereby we end up in the same problem.”

He also said Steamboat’s lack of a property tax actually makes it a more attractive place for out-of-towners to buy a second home. Rather than being taxed on the value of that second home, they are just paying sales taxes while in town.

“If I’m very wealthy, I could buy a property there and it’s an asset, it appreciates and it’s not that expensive to carry,” Swintek said.

Council did not make any decisions on Tuesday, other than to indicate a willingness to continue the conversation and to devote money in the 2025 budget to explore feasibility. Swintek said this effort is moving at a deliberate pace and would target November 2025 for a potential ballot measure, should the idea get that far.

“We want to give the community options, choices that they have to make based on what’s important to them” Muntean said. “Are we going to kick the can down the road or are we going to give the community choices and let them decide what they want.”  

Top Photo Caption: Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue's Mountain Fire Station needs to be replaced. (City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy)


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