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Second-degree burns

Would paying double for fire service get you steamed? That's what's happening in northern Colorado Springs



More than 3,000 property owners in northern Colorado Springs are paying twice for fire service — a situation that probably won't change any time soon.

Residents of Flying Horse, Trail Ridge, Northgate and other areas pay city taxes covering all city services, including fire response, and then turn around and pay 40 percent more than that to Don Wescott Fire Protection District for fire service alone.

One typical homeowner on Windy Oaks Road in Flying Horse pays $210 a year in property taxes for city services that include snow removal, street repairs, parks, police and fire service. That homeowner also pays $298 annually just for fire service from Wescott, which covers an area bounded roughly by Interquest Parkway on the south, Baptist Road on the north, Highway 83 on the east and Interstate 25 on the west.

In fact, city property owners pay $1 million of Wescott's total property tax revenue of $1.66 million annually, although city firefighters respond to calls for all those properties.

But nothing will change until the city builds Station 22, a half-mile south of Northgate Road and Voyager Parkway. And even then, it could be iffy.

Another mess

Under a years-old agreement between the city and Wescott, the district is supposed to erase city tracts from its tax rolls when Station 22 is constructed. But now, with Springs fire officials talking about having Station 22 built in the next few years, Wescott contends the agreement is void, because the phase-out would remove more than half its territory. That would threaten its viability, and Wescott points to a state law that says the city could be forced to serve the entire Wescott district if more than half the district's territory is excluded, or more than half its valuation is wiped out by removing city properties.

"It's an interesting dilemma," says Springs Fire Chief Steve Cox.

Springs Fire officials say they're already talking with Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District about taking over part of Wescott, should it become necessary. What Wescott Fire Chief Jeff Edwards would prefer, though, is a new phase-out agreement putting off any exclusion of city property by 10 to 15 years. That would allow Wescott to figure out how to raise property taxes in a smaller area to maintain service levels and assure that employees are vested in a retirement plan.

Edwards says the district is exploring a merger with the adjacent Black Forest Fire/Rescue Protection District to hedge against losing city tax revenue. But it's too early to know financial details of such a deal.

In any event, he notes that city taxpayers must stay on the tax rolls to help repay any debt incurred while their properties were part of Wescott. The district plans to take on more debt soon to build its third station at Highway 83 and Stagecoach Road, which Edwards predicts will take 15 to 20 years to pay off.

It's shaping up to be a big mess, but in this area, that's nothing new. In 2001, 1,700 properties at Academy Boulevard and Woodmen Road were yanked from Wescott's taxing authority after the county assessor found Wescott had included them on its rolls in defiance of a 1987 court order. Wescott was forced to refund about $243,000, or two years' worth of taxes.

Wescott's taxation of Flying Horse and surrounding city subdivisions has been allowed to continue even after their 2003 annexation into the city; the agreement called for Wescott to back off only when Station 22 was built and staffed.

Construction of the station will be funded by a developer who has already committed to do the project. But the city must staff it, and there's no money. Cox notes that even if the city's property tax hike on the Nov. 3 ballot passes, it doesn't guarantee new hires.

Hot or not

A new station is needed because Station 19, at 2490 Research Pkwy., now serving the area, has the city's second-worst average response time. It arrives at calls within eight minutes only 76 percent of the time, well short of the 90 percent goal, according to 2008 figures. (The city's slowest times are recorded by Station 16, serving the Broadmoor Bluffs area, where crews deal with snaking roads and steep inclines.)

Edwards contends Wescott's 14 full-timers and 20 volunteers get to most scenes in less than eight minutes, but he didn't provide documentation.

Station 19 Battalion Chief Wayne Teeple and Edwards disagree on who reaches which parts of the territory first and how often, a microcosm of what might lie ahead in negotiating city property owners out of the Wescott district.

Springs Deputy Chief Dan Raider says one recent meeting ended abruptly: "[Wescott reps] got angry and left."

If the city and Wescott can't agree, state law allows residents to petition a judge to remove them from the fire district — but half of the 3,052 property owners would have to do so.

That's unlikely, considering the apparent apathy of at least some of those who own the luxury, custom and high-end homes, valued as highly as $1 million, with tax bills easily exceeding $5,000 a year. Cox says he rarely hears a peep about it. Realty agents selling Flying Horse lots give potential buyers a list of taxing agencies, but nobody seems to balk. Maybe they're not even aware.

Jennifer Leppert, who's lived in Flying Horse for three years, was getting her kids ready for a jaunt to Barefoot Park down the street one recent day. Asked about the double taxation, adding $197 from Wescott to her annual tax bill, Leppert said she didn't know about it, adding, "That's very interesting."

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