BLACK FOREST, Colo. (AP) – Voters in the small unincorporated community of Black Forest in El Paso County could face a bleak choice on ballots later this year between higher taxes and fewer firefighters.

A board overseeing the Black Forest Fire/Rescue plans to ask residents for the property tax increase on November ballots. If the measure fails, the fire service would have to lose six of 11 paid staff members.

“We understand that this is a tough time and it’s a tough time for many of our citizens,” said Walter Seelye, board treasurer. “So we are asking `All right, what level of service do you want from us?’ There’s a cost either way.”

The (Colorado Springs) Gazette reports that the board’s plan comes as the department struggles to deal with weak property tax revenues, less income from ambulance fees and the expiration of a vital five-year federal SAFER grant that helped the department more than double the number of full-time employees.

If approved, the Black Forest tax measure would likely raise taxes by 4.25 mills, bringing the fire department’s operational mill levy to 9.215 ( ). That would mean the owner of a $342,000 house — the median value for a home in Black Forest — would pay an extra $116 a year in taxes, said Kathy Russell, fire department spokeswoman.

Officials with the Falcon Fire Department have also reserved space on the ballot for a tax increase question, though they’ve yet to decide whether to bring the issue to voters.

Falcon Fire Chief Trent Harwig said officials are considering raising the current mill levy rate from 5.7 mills to 8.2 mills. Without the increase, Harwig anticipates laying off most of the six firefighters that the federal grant helped fund. Falcon currently has 27 firefighters and 35 volunteers.

Black Forest Fire/Rescue could face similar staff reductions, Russell said.

If no new taxes are approved, Russell said the six firefighters added in 2006 would likely to be laid off in the coming year, dropping the department’s full-time staff to five. The department would rely more on its 35 volunteers.

“One way or another, this fire department will continue to answer the call,” Russell said. “We still do it; it just takes longer.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)


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