This story was updated at 4 p.m. Nov. 8.
The Elk Creek, North Fork and Inter-Canyon fire departments will not be consolidating.
Voters in the Elk Creek Fire Protection District voted against consolidation with a 116-vote difference between those against and those in favor. Voters in both the Inter-Canyon and North Fork fire districts approved consolidation by a two-to-one margin.
For consolidation to take place, a majority of voters in all three districts must approve consolidation and a tax increase to equalize property taxes and to help fund the new district.
North Fork voted 67% to 33% to consolidate and Inter-Canyon voted 66% to 44% to consolidate. However, Elk Creek has 2,919 votes or 51.01% against consolidation and 2,803 votes or 48.99% in favor.
Elk Creek voters did approve keeping a sunsetting property tax if consolidation failed, voting 61% in favor to 39% against, which means Elk Creek Fire will keep the same level of property taxes to fund the department.
Neil Whitehead III, a member of the anti-consolidation group Save Elk Creek Fire, said: “The three (fire) chiefs and the boards were way too fast and way too rigid with too little information for the public. The public understood that. That’s why they turned (consolidation) down.”
He said Save Elk Creek Fire’s goal was to seek clarity so the Elk Creek Fire District voters could sort things out.
“Clarity doesn’t necessarily mean unity, but the various pathways forward need to be sorted out,” he said. “Then perhaps we will need another election or we can go down some other pathway.”
He said voters against consolidation were concerned about what he called “secrecy,” with no organized, detailed plan on how consolidation would take place and how money would be spent.
Next steps will need public involvement — asking for public input rather than telling the public what the fire districts want to do, Whitehead said.
“We are in a divided community about which way to go and how to do this,” Whitehead said. “I think there’s a whole lot of work to be done.”
He noted that other avenues existed for the fire departments to work together in addition to intergovernmental agreements already in place.
In a letter to the community, the Elk Creek Fire Protection District said: “While we had hoped for a different outcome, we respect and acknowledge the decision that has been made by the majority of voters. We also want to express our gratitude to voters in Elk Creek Fire Protection District for the passage of ballot measure 7E, preventing the loss of 2.5 mills in the district.”
Bethany Urban, an Elk Creek paramedic who is also with Elk Creek Professional Firefighters Local 4710, called consolidation a complex issue.
“Right now, as emergency responders, we remain committed to serving our communities with the exact same dedication and care that we always have,” said Urban, who was also a member of the pro-consolidation A Safer Conifer. “We are committed to finding ways to address the challenges we will face moving forward.”
On the positive side, a significant number of voters want expanded services, and that’s something to take note of,” Urban said.
According to the letter: “We were dedicated to the idea of consolidation as the best method to accomplish this, as it would provide increased 24/7 staffing and therefore a more robust emergency-response capacity. We know this increased capacity is needed to care for this mountain community as it grows. We will continue exploring ways to enhance our services and remain open to dialogue and collaboration with the community to address the challenges ahead, both known and unexpected.”
Proponents of consolidation said it would be good for residents in the Elk Creek, North Fork and Inter-Canyon fire districts along the 285 corridor, improving response times, allowing the consolidated district to add more paid staff, and streamlining training and other aspects of emergency services.
Proponents believed the three fire districts were stronger together, and a consolidated department would be more successful as the number of calls increase, the population ages and volunteerism nationwide wanes.
A larger fire department would be eligible for more grants, and it would have a larger voice in the county and the state to advocate for help, and the trend nationwide is for smaller fire departments to consolidate.
Opponents disagreed. They said while consolidation may be good for the Inter-Canyon and North Fork fire districts, it would dilute the emergency services that Elk Creek residents now receive while they fund about two-thirds of the new department.
They said the fire districts were using fear to get residents to vote for consolidation, and intergovernmental agreements and mutual aid among the three districts allow them to collaborate without consolidating.
They said the three fire districts were not similar in terms of culture, terrain and outlook, and because of the disparity in departments, they didn’t belong in one fire department.
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