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West Metro finalizes language on November ballot question

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By Deborah Swearingen

When Jon Bybee’s 17-year-old granddaughter went into cardiac arrest earlier this year, West Metro Fire Rescue paramedics were there to save her life.

Because of this, Bybee spoke in support of West Metro’s upcoming ballot initiative that, if approved, would allow the district to adjust its mill levy to compensate for a loss in revenue due to a reduced residential assessment rate.

“Because of the quick response of this team of West Metro Fire responders, Taylor’s life was saved,” Bybee said during public comment in a Sept. 5 special meeting. “ … Please, let’s make sure that other people are as lucky as we are.”

Similar to fire departments across Colorado, West Metro is concerned about the impacts of the Gallagher Amendment, which limits the growth of residential property taxes. Property taxes are a primary source of funding for fire protection districts and other government and public bodies. If the residential assessment rate drops from 7.2 percent to the expected 6.1 percent, West Metro predicts a $5 million loss in revenue. The full-service fire agency serves nearly 280,000 residents across more than 108 square miles in Jefferson and Douglas counties.

“We just want to maintain or keep the money that we’re getting today. That’s really what we’re trying to do,” said West Metro Fire Chief Don Lombardi.

Furthermore, as president of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs, Lombardi has researched the issue extensively and spoken to the state legislature about it. At this point, he said it’s imperative to be proactive.

“There … are a ton of fire departments that are doing something on this order,” he said. “It’s going to take local change, like what we’re proposing, to make all this happen. I mean, it’s that much of a statewide crisis.”

At the Sept. 5 meeting, a variety of community members and public figures, including Commissioner Casey Tighe and Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul, came to speak in favor of a ballot initiative.

One resident did speak against sending the initiative to the ballot, touching largely on her concern about the rising cost of healthcare and sharing a story about an expensive ambulance bill. However, all seven board members disagreed, ultimately voting in favor of sending a question to West Metro’s electorate in the November general election.

WHAT IS THE GALLAGHER AMENDMENT?

Enacted in 1982 in an effort to limit the growth of residential property taxes, the Gallagher Amendment requires that 45 percent of the total amount of state property tax collected must come from residential property while 55 percent must come from commercial property.

Whenever statewide total residential property values rise faster than commercial property values — as is the case in Colorado in recent years — the amendment requires the reduction of the residential property assessment rate to comply with the 45/55 percentage divide.

Ultimately, the reduction in assessment rate translates into decreased revenue for government and public bodies, including fire districts, which depend on those property taxes to maintain service offerings.