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Homeowners would be on the hook for roughly another $10 a month in property taxes if voters approve the inclusion of Littleton Fire Rescue into a larger, neighboring district this fall, according to city officials.
Littleton Fire Rescue Chief Chris Armstrong and city Finance Director Tiffany Hooten presented a draft intergovernmental agreement spelling out some of the terms by which South Metro Fire Rescue, a large consolidated fire district covering much of the south metro area, could absorb Littleton Fire Rescue, the city's firefighting force, at the March 13 city council study session.
In November, if voters approve a measure to dissolve the city's firefighting force and incorporate it into South Metro, Littleton would decrease its mill levy rate from 6.662 to 2, but homeowners would see a new mill levy of 9.25 to pay South Metro for fire coverage.
On a home valued at $370,000, the change would mean a tax increase of $10.19 per month, according to Hooten's analysis, bringing the monthly tax burden from $179.15 to $189.34.
For a commercial property valued at $1 million, the change would mean an increase of $110.88 per month.
South Metro must still seek approval from a district court for the inclusion effort to be included on the November ballot, with a ruling expected by June, said Mayor Debbie Brinkman. Littleton City Council will have a first reading on the draft intergovernmental agreement on April 3, and a second reading and public hearing on April 17.
Once city council has approved the measure and South Metro has received the court's blessing, the measure will officially be placed on the ballot, Brinkman said.
Residents will receive improved fire service, Armstrong said.
South Metro provides top-tier fire service that benefits from economies of scale, Armstrong said. The district currently covers a vast swath of the south metro area — including Parker, Lone Tree, Castle Pines, Greenwood Village, Cherry Hills Village and much of Centennial.
South Metro is accredited by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, Armstrong said, one of only 239 fire departments nationwide to meet the commission's standards and criteria.
Accredited agencies are “community-focused, data-driven, outcome-focused, strategic-minded, well organized, properly equipped, and properly staffed and trained,” according to CFAI's website.
South Metro also has an Insurance Service Office rating of 1, compared to Littleton Fire Rescue's 2 rating, Armstrong said, which he hypothesized could translate into reduced homeowner's insurance rates with some carriers.
Joining South Metro could bring cost savings in years to come, Armstrong said, because the agreement will be locked in at the 9.25 mill levy and could only be hiked by popular vote.
LFR would have had to raise prices sooner, Amstrong said.
“Costs have been increasing, and Littleton Fire couldn't have gotten to South Metro's level (of service),” Armstrong said.
The issue of inclusion in South Metro arose last November after the city's fire partners, Highlands Ranch Metro District and Littleton Fire Protection District, announced they would sever their contractual agreements with Littleton to provide fire service and join South Metro effective in January 2019. Cunningham Fire District, a smaller district, cut ties with Littleton effective at the beginning of 2018.
The announcement left Littleton scrambling to find a viable option for fire service after the partners left. City council examined four options: merging with South Metro; merging with West Metro, a large consolidated district on the west side of the metro area; contracting for service with Denver Fire, which already contracts with Englewood; or going it alone as a standalone district.
The options began to fall away. West Metro would have charged a mill levy of 12.38, and does not share a large contiguous border with Littleton. Denver would have only contracted for fire service instead of allowing full inclusion, shares only a small border via its contract with Englewood and does not staff medics on its trucks. And a standalone fire service would have necessitated a mill levy of 16.11 for significantly reduced service, Armstrong said.
Several city council members referred to South Metro as the city's “only option” during a December study session.
The inclusion plan is different than a contractual agreement because it cannot be severed without a vote of the people, said Mayor Debbie Brinkman.
“It prevents us from finding ourselves in the place we are now, because we wouldn't be here if our partners hadn't put their resignations in on the contract,” Brinkman said. “On inclusion, we can't get dropped out of the district. It adds a security measure.”
If approved by voters, the inclusion plan would allow South Metro to enlarge its jurisdictional boundaries to include Littleton. Voters in Highlands Ranch and Littleton Fire Protection District — which includes west Centennial and some areas just to the west of Littleton — will vote on their own inclusion measures in a special election in May.
If voters turn down the inclusion plan, Littleton would join South Metro as part of a fire authority on Jan. 1, 2019, said city attorney Steve Kemp.
“The average citizen wouldn't notice any difference,” Kemp said. “A truck would respond to your call on Dec. 31, and a truck will respond on Jan. 1.”
The main difference would be in funding. If the city joins South Metro as part of a fire authority, the city's mill levy would remain the same, but Littleton would pay South Metro the equivalent of the 9.25 mill price tag out of the city's general fund.
If voters rejected the inclusion plan, the city would try again each fall until it hopefully passed, Kemp said, but the city would be out of the fire protection business.
“We won't go it alone,” Kemp said. “We don't have the financial wherewithal or the financial structure in a city of this size to do those expenses.”
Inclusion with South Metro could free up a chunk of funds that could be reappropriated to road repair, Hooten said.
The city currently spends about $7.1 million a year on fire service, Hooten said, and the mill levy reduction is expected to decrease city revenue by $4 million a year. The difference of $3.1 million could be reallocated toward the city's aging street infrastructure, which City Manager Mark Relph said would help bring annual expenditures closer to the $4 million recommended in a 2014 survey of city roads.
Inclusion would also get the city off the hook of paying for maintenance and upgrades to fire trucks and equipment, which would be handed over to South Metro.
“The apparatus at the stations were purchased with taxpayer dollars to provide a service that it will continue to provide,” Armstrong said. “On the flip side, we're gaining access to billions of dollars of resources we didn't pay for. If we had a large-scale incident in our jurisdiction, fire apparatus purchased by Parker, Greenwood Village, Cherry Hills Village and DTC would come to our aid and be part of our response at no additional cost to us. We're paying a little money and buying all those resources.”
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