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A darkened landscape



Those who lost their homes to the Waldo Canyon Fire are left with foundations full of ashes and the arduous chore of accounting for their valuables to insurance adjusters. At least they won't have to pay property taxes next year, since their homes lie in heaps of rubble, right?

Not so.

"Some property owners will be looking for a zero tax bill," El Paso County Assessor Mark Lowderman says. "But unfortunately, based on Colorado tax law, that's not possible."

Instead, owners of destroyed homes will receive a tax bill based on the full value of the home for the first 48 percent of 2012 — up to the June 26 firestorm. And for the rest of the year, they'll pay based on the value of the land.

For example, consider a property with a total value of $464,000, of which $92,500 was the land. It will see its tax bill fall, but not by as much as you'd think: from $2,250 to $1,300, Lowderman says.

Based on appraisers' two long days in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, Lowderman says the 345 homes that were destroyed — one fewer than city officials initially said — represent a loss of $45.5 million in value from the tax rolls. Also, 39 damaged homes represent a loss of $1.9 million, and the remaining 1,126 properties will see a 10 percent decline due to the stigma associated with their location in a burn area, totaling $14.4 million.

Total reduction: $61.8 million.

City challenges

Lowderman's loss figure is important, because it's the one upon which revenues will be based for next year's taxes. (Property taxes are always paid in arrears.)

Colorado Springs School District 11 projects a reduction in its property tax revenue of about $216,000, but that likely will be backfilled by state money under the school funding formula. Other taxing entities' reductions are much smaller, including $37,350 for the county and $21,000 for the city.

And that's good, because the city and county have racked up fire bills totaling $7 million-plus so far.

Laura Neumann, Mayor Steve Bach's chief of staff, estimates the city will shell out up to $4.5 million for overtime pay to firefighters, food, fuel and supplies. "We are still gathering exact figures by category — purchases were made by many throughout the organization," she says in an e-mail. Neumann adds that the city will seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, hoping to recover 75 percent of some of those costs.

About $23,000 was spent on gasoline to fuel the city's fleet that worked on the fire. Other costs include food and supplies for firefighters, and the Emergency Operations Center, which stayed open around the clock for days. The city also paid for GIS mapping, printing and communications equipment.

The cost to city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities is estimated at $2.7 million. Labor and equipment account for $1.5 million, while infrastructure damage — to water, sewer, gas and electric lines — totaled $1 million. Water used to fight the fires, at least 39 million gallons, is valued at about $200,000.

"We have been working with various relief agencies and believe the majority of the costs will be reimbursed and not impact customer rates," reads a release.

Utilities spokesman Dave Grossman notes in an e-mail that larger expenses could loom if heavy rains cause mudslides around Rampart Reservoir and in West Monument Creek, where the city's largest water treatment plants are located. Utilities already is working with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies on erosion and flood mitigation, a process that takes years, he says.

County challenges

El Paso County doesn't have a firm estimate of its spending, but county budget director Nicola Sapp spent 12 hours a day at the Incident Command Post to help track costs, which included everything from use of bulldozers, trucks and water tankers to printing more than 4,000 pages of materials daily for post personnel. The county also set up the Disaster Recovery Center at 105 N. Spruce St., which is still being used as a clearinghouse for those with destroyed or damaged homes.

Sheriff Terry Maketa estimates the firefighting costs to the county and other local jurisdictions, such as Cascade and Green Mountain Falls, at up to $5 million. That said, he expects the Colorado Emergency Fire Fund to pick up 75 percent of those costs, even though that fire fund is already depleted. Maketa says he's been told the state will meet its obligations under an agreement in which the county pays an annual fee, about $120,000, to the state fire fund.

"El Paso County pays one of the highest rates due to geography, wildland and total valuation," he says. "I am pretty confident the state will stand behind the EFF agreement."

Maketa says the county also will apply for reimbursement for any other costs, such as staffing the Joint Operations Center, from FEMA, since President Obama has declared the burned neighborhoods a disaster area. FEMA generally reimburses 75 percent of costs, and offers grants to fill the remaining gaps, Maketa says.

The city, too, will apply to FEMA, Neumann says. Whatever isn't reimbursed will be funded with general-fund dollars.

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