DENVER, Colo. (CBS4) – As wildfires break out across Colorado, rural fire departments in Colorado are warning of deep budget cuts. They stand to lose millions of dollars in funding over the next few years.
Property taxes are expected to drop substantially next year, which is great news for homeowners. But there’s a catch.
From medical emergencies to wildfires, Platte Canyon Fire Protection District is the first responder for 280 square miles of rural Colorado. It’s a department with just 16 full-time employees.
“What have we his is what necessitates to do our job one shift to the next,” Assistant Chief Joe Burgett said.
Burgett says they’ll be stretched even thinner next year when residential property taxes drop. For Platt Canyon it will mean an 18 percent reduction in their budget, or up to $380,000 a year.
“Eighteen percent of revenue is a large, large number to be able to cover,” Burgett said.
It’s only expected to get worse over the next few years. Twenty-five years ago voters passed a constitutional measure called the Gallagher Amendment, which requires commercial property taxes make up a larger share of overall revenue than residential taxes.
So as home values soared, residential taxes were slashed to maintain the ratio. But because of another constitutional amendment — the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) — the tax cuts were permanent. That’s resulted in a huge disparity between commercial and residential taxes.
Because rural areas like Platt Canyon don’t have many commercial properties, they’re hit hardest. Those taxes fund public safety and schools.
“It’s not as if we get to choose what’s going to get cut. TABOR is picky and TABOR decides that what’s wasteful is firefighters, and what’s wasteful is ambulances, and what’s wasteful is maybe your local sheriff’s deputies,” Tim Hoover with the Colorado Fiscal Institute said.
Hoover says in 2018 Gallagher and TABOR will mean a loss of up to $500 million to local governments statewide.
While the state backfills some of the loss to schools, that also means cuts to things like transportation and higher education.
“I think we cut out most of the fat some years ago, and now were cutting into the muscle,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said.
Hickenlooper has turned to the original author of Gallagher for help.
“We’re working on a couple different models and what a solution might look like … we’d have to go to the vote of the people,” Hickenlooper said.
Senate President Kevin Grantham, who represents Platt Canyon, says it’ll be a tough sell.
“Any amount of leveling is effectively shifting tax burden back from the commercial to the residential,” Grantham said. “What is the political palate for that? Probably not great.”
But Burgett warns what you save in property taxes could put public safety at risk.
“There are some rural departments in the state of Colorado that wouldn’t be able to absorb those losses … they would have to close their doors,” he said.
Because Gallagher and TABOR are in the constitution, only the voters can change them. Lawmakers are considering putting a question on the ballot.
Burgett says it’s not just a rural issue. He points out wildfires impact the air and water of the entire state.