HURRICANE – A hefty tax increase earmarked to hire more firefighters and build more fire stations in the Hurricane Valley area is being proposed by the Hurricane Valley Fire District.
The proposal, which would raise the Fire District’s budget by more than 56 percent, was discussed during a public hearing Nov. 7. A discussion and possible passage on the final budget is scheduled at the Fire District’s Dec. 5 meeting.
Hurricane Fire Chief Tom Kuhlmann said state code requires the Fire District to pass the budget in December, which he said he hopes will occur barring any additional requirements from another entity with jurisdiction over the Fire District, such as the county.
The amount of every individual homeowner’s tax increase would depend on their home’s appraised tax value. As an example, the tax increase on a home with an appraised tax value of $196,000 would be $73 more a year or a 74 percent increase.
The district’s most immediate need from the tax hike is more manpower, Hurricane City Manager Clark Fawcett said.
The Fire District is being maxed out with call volume. Currently, there are only two full-time firefighters on each shift. Some firefighters have been working 24-36 hours straight, Virgin Mayor and Fire District Board Chairman Bruce Densley said.
“Our six full‐time and volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel responded to 832 calls for service or an average of 2 per day in 2002,” a 2017 Budget Statement on the Hurricane Valley Fire District’s website explained. “In 2015 we responded to 2,375 calls for service with the same number of full‐time employees. Our consistent growth in call volume has us on track to respond to an average seven calls per day in 2016.”
Some of the volunteers that have been helping out for a long time are in declining health and one was recently injured, Fawcett said.
Years ago Hurricane relied heavily on volunteers for its fire force, Fawcett said, but there aren’t as many volunteers anymore due to more stringent training requirements, especially on the medical side. Today, they’re having trouble recruiting enough willing volunteers to get a training class going, the 2017 budget statement states.
“They (volunteers) used to show up and away they went,” Fawcett said, adding that it’s not that simple today.
Numerous residents have told city leaders to just fill the spots with volunteers to avoid the tax hike, but Fawcett said many prospective volunteers feel they are too busy or that it is too much of a commitment. Others have gone through the training, see how involved it is and then don’t stay on, he explained.
When Hurricane and Leeds joined the Hurricane Valley Fire District it brought many positive elements together. However, one negative was how the additional members affected the district’s tax levy.
“Surprisingly, our service area growth has had a negative impact on our revenue stream,” the budget statement said. “The State Tax Commission determined over the last two years that the adjustment of our boundaries to include the Leeds Area SSD and Hurricane City required a reduction in our property tax levy rate.”
“No one likes a tax increase,” Densley said, explaining that some residents have been vocal against it.
Kuhlmann agreed with Densley, saying “it’s never easy to get additional taxes,” but explained that 77 percent of the voters on Propostion 1, a June 2010 ballot measure, voted to pay for the district’s increased budget needs through a property tax instead of a fee.
Councilwoman Cheryl Reeve voiced a few concerns of her own. She said that the tax increase is hitting “bare land” harder.
“Not everybody can stand tax increases,” she said. ” I agree that the Fire and Ambulance Department needs more employees, but a tax increase of this amount that will stay on year after year is questionable to me.”
Property tax revenue attributed to the 2016 budget was $1,326,105.56, while the proposed 2017 budget hopes for $2,396,567.00 in tax revenue, an increase of nearly $1.1 million.
The budget statement explained that the proposed 2017 budget represents a 56.6% increase over the 2016 budget. Of the increase, 43.3% will fund 12 additional full‐time firefighter paramedics or firefighter EMTs and increase one previously approved part‐time clerical position to a full‐time position.
“The remaining 13.3% will go toward replacing our end of life breathing apparatus, ambulance stretchers and to fund a required debt service reserve for a Utah Permanent Community Impact Board bond for a new fire station and ladder truck,” the statement said.
Educating people on the need for the tax increase has been the hard part, Densley said, explaining that some people don’t think the District knows what it’s doing. He said that people don’t realize that years of planning has been involved in the decision.
They think that more volunteers will fix the problem, but that it’s not that easy, he explained.
Some who stayed for the proposed budget portion of the Nov. 7 public hearing were much more understanding as to why the tax increase is needed, Densley said.
Kuhlmann said that some residents who own a lot of land in the city came to the meeting to protest the increase, but once they saw how much it was needed, they changed their minds.
“The citizens determine what we do,” Densley said. If they don’t mind a slower response, he explained, then that’s what they’ll get if there is no tax increase.
Densley compared the Fire District to insurance – citizens might never need it, but if they do, they want it to come as soon as possible.
The district’s insurance company has told them that in order to keep their insurance rating, they should have three new stations and one new ladder truck. Eventually, if the district doesn’t deliver on what it needs, insurance rates will go up, Fawcett said.
To help meet its station needs, Hurricane is pooling its resources with Washington City to construct a new station in the Coral Canyon area near I-15’s Exit 16. Fawcett said building a joint station with another city or district saves the District money.
In addition to the new station in Coral Canyon, the district is adding onto its station in LaVerkin and has property in Virgin to put one there.
Fawcett projects that the district’s next new station would be built in the Dixie Springs area and that the tax increase would help towards the capital to construct such a station.
Fawcett said ambulance service is not a money maker anymore. Due to Medicaid and other regulations and restrictions, ambulance providers sometimes only get 50 percent of what they bill.
The full-time firefighters can’t keep going like they are, Fawcett said, with so much overtime. He said it would be better and more efficient to pay additional staff instead of keeping the status quo.
“We need to keep it running,” Fawcett said.
Densley said the Fire District’s budget is lean and hasn’t had a personnel change in a long time.
“We’re not indiscriminately raising taxes,” he said. “We’re trying to pinch pennies. We’re not building a Taj Mahal of fire stations.”
Densley said he hopes that in the next board meeting on Dec. 5, they will review what will be the final budget.
“The restoration of funding and addition of personnel are critical to our level of service, the protection of our public safety employees and the protection of the public we so proudly serve,” the budget statement said. “It is anticipated that these budget recommendations will enable our District to better meet the expectations of our citizens, customers, employees, regulators and the industry now and for years to come.”
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