Dan Steaves, of the Durango Fire and Rescue Authority, enters through a window at a recent house fire in Durango./Photo by Steve Eginoire

Something to talk about

Election could decide fate fire and rescue breakup
Candidates offer views on key issue
by Tracy Chamberlin

When Animas Fire District members fill in their ballots, they’ll not only be choosing a Board but a path forward in the mediation process with the Durango Fire and Rescue Authority.

At the end of last year, the Animas Fire Board voted 3-2 to withdraw from the Durango Fire and Rescue Authority by January 2013. On the heels of that notice, the Durango Fire and Rescue Authority, Hermosa Cliff Fire Department and the City of Durango began mediation talks with Animas in February in the hopes of reaching an agreement to keep the authority together.

“We are not looking for a divorce,” said City Manager Ron LeBlanc, who was a part of the February talks.

Nine candidates are running for three seats on the five-member board. The ballots are due 7 p.m. May 8.

 “The mediation is moving forward, but I don’t think anything will be resolved before the elections,” said Bill Webbe, chair of the DFRA and the Hermosa Cliff Fire Department.

The Animas Board’s vote to withdrawal began a year-long countdown. At any time they can vote to rescind the intent to withdrawal, otherwise, it will take affect Jan. 1, 2013. In that vote, Board members Claude E. “Bud” Deering, Jr., Tony Whittle and Bill Warren voted in favor of the withdrawal. Greg Drover and Jim Barrett voted in opposition.

The primary concerns Animas raised ahead of the mediation talks were the funding formula used to determine each district’s contribution to the authority’s budget and its overall governance.

“The big issue is the contribution basis, but there are other things as well,” Webbe said.

The DFRA’s current budget is just more than $5.8 million. The two biggest contributors to that budget are the city and the AFPD, which have comparable coverage areas in terms of population. Hermosa, with the lowest population and call volume of the three districts, pays the least.

In 2012, the city contributed just more than 41 percent or $2.3 million to the budget. Animas contributed about 51 percent or $2.9 million, and Hermosa added almost 8 percent or $461,539. The formula used to determine these numbers was based on assessed values of properties in each district.

The current funding proposal that came out of the February mediation places less attention on assessed property values, and more on call volume.

Initially, Animas asked that call volume make up 75 percent of the formula and assessed property value the remaining 25 percent. However, this meant the city’s contribution would jump to 57 percent of the total budget.

The proposed percentage of the formula based on call volume was dropped to 60 percent, leaving 40 percent based on the assessed property value. Other considerations also came into play in devising the final formula, including the difference between fire and emergency calls, the definition of a “single call,” and the revenues brought in by ambulance and fire services.

For example, fire calls and emergency calls are combined into one call volume, yet they require different types of services. Fire calls are typically less frequent, but can require more time, manpower and equipment than emergency medical service, or EMS, calls.

To further complicate the formula, all mobilizations are counted as one call. Therefore, a minor car accident on Main Avenue would be considered a single call as would the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002.

The final proposal that came out of the negotiations was that the city would pay 47 percent of the budget, or $2.7 million; Animas would pay 44 percent, or $2.5 million; and Hermosa Cliff would pay 8.6 percent or just less than $500,000.

This proposal was approved by the City Council but is still on the negotiating table.

Durango Fire Chief Dan Noonan said the emergency and fire services they are able to provide today are far superior to what they were before the three districts began working together under the flag of the DFRA in 2002.

“I hope all the parties can put their interests aside,” he said, “and put the people they’re serving first.”