West Metro planning for $70 million budget in 2019

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By Deborah Swearingen

West Metro Fire Rescue is proposing a balanced budget of nearly $70.2 million in which the department continues to rely heavily on property taxes from both Jefferson and Douglas County residents.

The full-service fire agency, which covers more than 108 square miles in two counties and serves nearly 280,000 residents, is expecting to bring in approximately $51.7 million in property taxes from Jeffco with an additional $1.7 million from Douglas County. Both amounts are just slightly more than what was budgeted for in 2018.

“Most of our dollars come from property tax,” West Metro Chief Don Lombardi said.

Lombardi noted the budget is conservative, particularly because the fire protection district is going for a ballot initiative in Tuesday’s election that would allow it to adjust the mill levy in order to compensate for a loss of revenue due to a reduced residential assessment rate.

The board finalized language for the ballot measure in early September and decided to go for it because of a concern about the impact of the Gallagher Amendment, which limits the growth of residential property taxes. 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.

“We’re hoping for a positive outcome in the election that allows us to get back to typically what do,” Lombardi said.

As an example, he noted there are 22 positions that haven’t been budgeted for in 2019. These are positions that the department typically hires for due to retirement, medical leave and the like. West Metro transferred the funds generally allocated for those positions to extra duty or overtime. If the ballot measure fails, Lombardi said the department would be forced to ask its employees to work overtime.

“These folks here, they’re taxed,” he said. “They’re working their behinds off, and we’re going to be asking them to come in on their days off when it should be recovery … if we’re unable to provide this sustainability.”

The majority of the department’s predicted $70.2 million in expenditures comes from salaries and benefits. In 2019, West Metro is predicting to spend nearly $56.9 million on this.

In order to balance the 2019 budget, however, the department plans to transfer $225,211 from its reserves. A large chunk of that — $200,000 — comes from West Metro’s wildland team that deploys to fight fires across the country.

Revenues from this are not budgeted annually due to the unpredictability of the fire season.

“The reason why we don’t post that is because we’re not sure if we’re going to have a wet year or not,” said West Metro finance director Glenda Aragon, adding that the state requires West Metro to budget revenue it’s sure about.

The board will take another look at the budget during a public hearing at its Nov. 20 board meeting. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the fire department’s administration building, 433 S. Allison Parkway in Lakewood.