On December 12, 2014 the Denver Post published "Evergreen fire adds fees for first response" by Josie Klemier. The article detailed The Evergreen Fire Protection District Board of Director's decision to approve a fee schedule for 2015 to charge nonresidents for response to motor vehicle accidents and other emergencies. The article created a bit of a stir and incited a fairly excited cry of confusion with a bit of outrage over our local social media. Because the article only reported the outcome of the decision, I decided to dig a bit deeper into the background that led to this choice.
Personally, I find the EFPD board's decision to charge for services at motor vehicle accidents to be short-sighted.
I spent 12 years as a volunteer with Alpine Rescue Team, a nonprofit search and rescue organization located in Evergreen. I was also involved both nationally and regionally with the Mountain Rescue Association. Across the nation, search and rescue has a firm policy against placing blame and in charging for rescues of any kind. I have been involved in promoting that policy on more than one occasion. I started the Facebook page No Charge for Rescue and also, with others, authored the winning argument that persuaded the Golden City Council to abandon charging for rescues in recreation areas by their fire department.
I believe decisions like this one present a slippery slope, which could easily lead to other incidences of charging for other services. More importantly, I do not feel this decision adequately reflects our community values or presents our community brand in a positive light. As more policies like this roll out across our state, I believe we are going to see more problems than solutions.
That said, it appears acceptable forethought entered the decision. I'll leave it to you to determine if there is adequate justification.
Kudos to our Fire Chief Mike Weege. After requesting financial information about the district, Chief Weege took it upon himself to learn about my concerns and to answer all my questions regarding the decision. I'm happy to provide our unedited correspondence. If you are interested in reading the email, send me a note and I'll fwd you the correspondence.
Following are some of the highlights of our correspondence.
- Authority: House Bill 11-1059 Gives fire protection districts the authority to bill for extrication, rescue or safety services in furtherance of ambulance or emergency medical services.
- Financial Condition: The district is legally not allowed to operate in the red. The 2013 EFPD Audited Financial Statements reported assets in the amount of $10,907,659 with capital assets representing about 70% of that number, a fund balance of $259K, and unrestricted assets of $3,425,488.
- Organizational Assessment: "The district has organized two separate focus groups over the last four years. One was to discuss the EMS billing fees and alternate EMS fees, and the second was to help develop the 2014 Strategic Plan. Both groups were made up of business owners, HOA representatives and home owners in Evergreen. Both of these groups asked us to leverage fee schedules to offset rising costs before going to the public for a mill levy increase."
Concerns About Revenue: "We are very concerned over our budget situation. Since 2010, we have seen a 12.4% drop in our property tax revenue. This has resulted in us cutting programs and other costs significantly. Not being able to make the scheduled deposits into our reserve fund has a significant impact on our future needs."
"The concern over revenue is mentioned several places throughout the Strategic Plan. One page 57, on page 38 under Planning Assumptions, in several of the division plans and is shown in Driving Factors of this Strategic Plan and listed as one of the concerns of the focus group on page 5. As you know, the housing bubble burst in 2008 started to affect us after 2010 and our revenue has been down each year after that. Is is projected to be down again in 2015 and as 2015 is another property valuation year, we are hoping the trend reverses as we are currently seeing homes sales increasing and construction projects starting again."
- Revenue Generation: "In 2013 we ran on 129 MVA. Our estimates were that we could generate between $30,000 and $50,000. This doesn't seem like a lot against a $5M budget but with the many other revenue sources we are identifying, it adds up. For example, we are working hard on developing firefighters for wild land fire deployment, which are paid deployments and can/has brought $50,000 in revenue. We are dispatching for five other mountain fire departments now and that is bringing in $80,000 – $100,000 a year."
- EMS Budget: I should explain further the EMS budget. EMS's annual operating expenses are between $1.8M and $2M. The invoicing for transports is about $1M a year be our actual receipts are only about $560,000. This is mainly because Medicare and Medicaid only pay a small percentage of the bills we send them. One pays 30% and the other pays 7%. We are not legally able to bill the individual the balance so we have to write off the difference every year.
To me and others in the district this decision seemed abrupt; I leave it to the reader to determine whether $30 to $50K of potential revenue against a $5 Million budget outweighs the potential for lost community goodwill. I'd encourage anyone who wants to learn more to contact Chief Weege or to attend the district's monthly meetings.