- Pam Zubeck
- Donald Wescott fire district’s newest station is at 15505 Highway 83.
Brookhill Drive, an upscale neighborhood with $500,000 homes, lies within a mile of Colorado Springs Fire Station 22 in northern Colorado Springs.
Yet, the property owners in the Brookhill area are among thousands of city residents who pay for fire protection from the Donald Wescott Fire Protection District. In fact, they pay roughly 64 percent more for Wescott taxes than they pay in taxes for all city services combined.
That came as news to several Brookhill neighborhood residents when the Independent recently asked for their thoughts about the double taxation.
"I had no idea," resident John Rusch said. He pays Wescott about $182 a year in property taxes, while at the same time paying the city $111 for all services, including fire protection.
But payments to Wescott from city taxpayers will be phased out starting next year, says Wescott Fire Chief Vinny Burns, and that would be a hefty hit to Wescott's cashbox, because city taxpayers account for 55 percent of the district's revenue.
To avoid a degradation in service, Burns says, the district might propose a tax increase to offset the phase-out of city tax revenue.
Originally named El Paso County Fire when it was founded in 1972, the largely volunteer department was later renamed for a firefighter who lost his life in a 1976 fire. Back then, the district's southern border was Dublin Boulevard, the city's north edge at the time.
As the city grew north — it now extends at least 10 miles from Dublin — city property owners continued to pay taxes to Wescott. And Wescott firefighters provided service within the Springs.
In 2002, after the city's fire service expanded to serve areas farther north, Wescott dropped 900 city properties in the south section of the district from its tax rolls and paid a rebate to those owners for the previous year's taxes. The following year, the district's southern boundary was established at Interquest Parkway.
As time passed, the city's growth outpaced expansion of its fire service, however, and Wescott picked up the slack. Using the Brookhill example, that subdivision was built in 2000 and 2001. But the city's Station 19, at 2490 Research Parkway, which is 6.5 miles away, didn't open until 2004. Farther east, Station 20, at Rangewood Drive and Dublin, opened that same year.
Station 21, at 7320 Dublin Blvd., is 11 miles away and didn't open until 2013.
But Westcott's Fire Station 1, which opened in 1997 at 15415 Gleneagle Drive, is only 4.3 miles away, and its station on Vincent Drive near Woodmen Road — a 9-mile trip to Brookhill — didn't close until 2003. (Wescott opened its newest station at 15505 Highway 83 in 2012, 6 miles from Brookhill.)
Today, there are 7,561 parcels in the Wescott district, assessor records show, of which 4,126 lie within the city limits. Most — 3,286 parcels — are residential properties. All lie within the 22 square miles that contain a population of about 30,000 covered by Wescott. The district is bounded by Interquest on the south, Baptist Road on the north, just east of Interstate 25 on the west and east of Highway 83 on the east.
The department consists of Burns, an assistant chief, three shift officers, 12 firefighters/EMTs, 20 volunteers and an administrative assistant. The department has three stations, though one is unmanned.
The district's annual budget tops $2 million a year, funded by property taxes. (Of the 20 fire districts in the county, only Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District to the north and the Falcon Fire Protection District to the east have a higher assessed value upon which property taxes are collected.)
But now the district is faced with reduced revenue, because the time has come to figure out how many and when city properties will be removed from its tax rolls.
The trigger point for negotiations was the March opening of Station 22 at 711 Copper Center Park, just south of North Gate Boulevard.
City Attorney Wynetta Massey says through a spokesperson it's premature to comment on the process. That process includes the district board's approval of removing properties and then filing an order with the county, triggering tracts to be removed from the tax rolls, says El Paso County Assessor Steve Schleiker.
Burns says the goal is to begin the exclusion next year, but he hopes it will be phased over a number of years.
In preparation, Burns and board members have started briefing Wescott's taxpayers outside the city that a tax increase might be needed to offset the lost revenue and fend off erosion of service.
There might be some room for an increase, considering Wescott's is lower than 14 other fire districts in the county. But Burns is cautious. "We'll see if the voters tell us we have room," Burns says. "They all realize they do not want to go backward in fire protection."
He notes the district's ISO rating — used to determine insurance rates and based on resources, water availability, equipment and manpower — stands at 3 on a 10-point scale with 1 being the highest. The city of Colorado Springs' ISO is 2.
"We've done a lot of work to get that," he says. "That would suffer if services were reduced."
On the upside, Burns reports the district is debt-free and has maneuvered to build facilities and acquire apparatus that won't need replacement for several years.