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LITTLETON, Colo. — Voters in Littleton will be asked in the fall whether it should effectively dissolve its fire department and allow South Metro Fire Rescue to take over coverage within the municipality.
Highlands Ranch and Littleton district voters already approved a similar merger with South Metro Fire.
But if voters approve the merger on November’s ballot, they would essentially be passing a property tax hike on their own homes because of the mill rate charged by South Metro.
"It creates a higher level of service for our community, and a sustainable level of fire protection that we were coming close to having some very severe struggles with," said Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman.
Brinkman said city leaders have already approved the merger with South Metro.
Littleton voters are being asked to change the way fire services are funded, which is currently through the general fund.
"Tax increases are not popular anywhere," Brinkman said. "The reality is there are occasions where you need to make tough decisions."
South Metro charges a rate of 9.25 mills for fire coverage, which translates to a roughly $120 a year property tax increase on a home valued at $370,000.
In return, the city is promising to use the money it saves paying for fire services to fix local roads and lower the amount of taxes the city collects from the current mill.
Is bigger better?
Once the merger takes effect in January 2019, South Metro Fire will be the second largest firefighting force in the state. With 29 fire stations, more than 700 employees, and serving half a million people.
"It's a huge area. It will be right around 300 square miles," said Eric Hurst with South Metro Fire. "With the fire stations that we're taking on we can absolutely cover the area, and we will be adding fire stations as time goes on to better cover those areas."
Hurst also stressed no one is losing their jobs. South Metro fire is taking over the current fire stations, and its employees.
"Big step in the right direction for what's best in the community and that's closet unit dispatching," he said
Closet unit dispatching means when an emergency call comes in. The closest fire truck goes, not the one with jurisdiction that could be farther away.
"When they call 911 for an emergency, help is still going to be responding, but the idea behind this is that we will have more resources to respond and we're already starting to have better response times to a lot of areas," said Hurst.
Hurst said the consolidation would improve response times, increase efficiency and lower operating costs.
Littleton councilwoman Carol Fey is the only one who voted against the merger.
Fey said she is not against the merger, she's against how the city is presenting the tax hike to voters.
"My main concern is that the city of Littleton is proposing a tax increase while calling it a tax decrease or creating that impression anyway," she said. "Fire service doesn't change whether they vote to have the taxes increased or not, either way, we get fire service for south metro."
"I would say that we are being transparent and we've been completely transparent every meeting we've had has been in public, there's no shell game here," said mayor Brinkman.
If voters don't approve the property tax increase and change to how fire services are funding in the city, Brinkman said the merger will still happen.
"We will have to pay for it out of the general fund," she said. "This is a much more stable funding mechanism for your fire service."