Fire district mill levy

Give the fire department a chance to justify it

On a mail ballot due out next week, the Cortez Fire Protection District will ask voters to approve a 3.5-mill property tax increase, on top of the current 6.59-mill levy.

Recent fires and the likelihood of many more emphasize the essential nature of the district’s services. A “yes” vote for the district mill levy should be justified by more than the public awareness that at some time in most people’s lives, someone they know is likely to need the fire department.

It’s a poor time for any taxing entity to ask for more money. The local economy has not recovered from the recession, and few people have a favorable opinion of “government.” Any “no” vote on a tax increase should be motivated by more than just resentment of taxes and government.

Few taxpayers balk at chipping in for fire service. When they dial 911, they want a fast, skilled response. They understand that firefighters risk their own lives, and that protecting them costs money. They recognize that equipment is expensive and training is essential. They know that this is a big district with challenging terrain and not much water.

What they cannot easily identify is a fair tax burden to ensure a balance between what the community needs and what it can afford.

The issue of paid firefighters is contentious and shouldn’t be. The time difference between an organized response from the fire department and a dash from home to get the engine can be the difference between damage and destruction, and between life and death. There’s no way to monetize the frustration and fear of watching a building burn, or a wildfire advance, while waiting for firefighters to assemble from various directions.

None of that discounts the contributions of volunteers, but expecting them to be on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, bears real costs to their families, their paying jobs and their health.

The rescue service is another matter — sometimes lifesaving, sometimes superfluous and always more controversial than firefighting. It’s true that Southwest Memorial Hospital has a limited number of vehicles and responders. It’s true that on some calls, every second and every helping hand is priceless. In an emergency, victims don’t care what ensignia their responders are wearing, as long as the responsi is speedy and the personnel are well trained and well equipped.

That said, a behind-the-scenes turf war serves no one well, including the fire district. The public would be better equipped to make a decision about the need for dual response on every call if statistics were provided on the medical value of that response, and if data-based protocols were used to determine whether both agencies need to go. It makes sense that the hospital should provide medical service, and the fire district should provide fire service, responding together only when there’s information to suggest that’s necessary. That’s the same idea behind not calling for a helicopter for every highway accident.

The owner of a $150,000 property would pay $41.79 in additional taxes each year. At $250,000, the price goes up to $69.65. That’s not too much to pay for progressive fire protection. Today, that amount won’t buy a 20-gallon tank of gas, nor would it go far toward paying for homeowner’s insurance, let alone toward recovering from a catastrophic fire. Still, it’s enough to be felt. It’s more than a 50 percent increase, at a time when any tax hike is difficult to sell.

This is not the time for a knee-jerk “no” vote. It’s the time to research carefully what the Cortez Fire Protection District has said it will do with the money, and to consider carefully whether local fire service — currently very good — is the right place to cut corners.