An ambulance managed by the Aspen Ambulance District in conjunction with Aspen Valley Hospital.
An ambulance managed by the Aspen Ambulance District in conjunction with Aspen Valley Hospital. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

ASPEN – Pitkin County commissioners gave initial approval this week to a ballot question that would increase funding for the Aspen Ambulance District so it can build a new $5 million facility and appropriately fund its operations.

The district’s current mill levy, or taxing rate, is .22 and the proposed rate is .501. The increase would mean the property tax bill for ambulance services on a house in the district worth $1 million would increase from $17.50 to $39.80, or about $22. The tax bill on a $3 million house would increase by about $66.

This year, the district expects to see $429,227 in tax revenue. Pitkin County Treasurer Tom Oken has calculated the proposed mill levy would cover debt service on a new ambulance barn and staff headquarters facility and meet ongoing operational requirements.

The district’s boundaries include Aspen and the unincorporated areas of Pitkin County from Watson Divide up to Aspen.

It does not include Snowmass Village, which is served by the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District; the Snowmass Creek and Capitol Creek valleys, which are served by the Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District; or the Crystal River Valley, which is in the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District.

Last year, the Aspen Ambulance District responded to 1,156 calls for service and received $800,000 in payment for its services.

The district was formed in 1982 by the county with a mill levy of .82. The mill levy been reduced over the years to .22 by the county’s Fenton amendment and the state’s Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR amendment, both of which reduce tax rates as property values rise.

The ballot question is also asking voters to exempt the district’s proposed new mill levy from both the Fenton and TABOR amendments.

A joint operating committee overseeing the district has concluded the district will begin to eat into its operating reserves by 2017.

“Our revenue model will not sustain the district, with the rising cost of operations,” said Gabe Muething, the supervisor of the ambulance district. Muething said decreases in insurance payments and the rapidly rising cost of vehicles and medical equipment is pinching the district’s budget.

The district’s operating committee also found that its ambulance barn next to Aspen Valley Hospital, which provides shelter for its ambulances and the paramedics who operate them, is now inadequate.

For example, today’s taller ambulances barely fit into the garages at the facility, which was built in 1992, and there are only three garage bays for the district’s four ambulances.

The joint operating committee includes Muething, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock, Aspen Valley Hospital CEO Dan Bonk and AVH Chief Nursing Officer Elaine Gerson.

The ambulance district is a special taxing district authorized by the county’s home rule charter. The district contracts with AVH to provide medical services so the 22 paramedics and eight EMTs who staff the ambulances are hospital employees, albeit ones who primarily work inside another organization. The district’s ambulance barn is on hospital property that is leased to the county at no cost.

The joint operating committee was formed in 2008 to untangle some of the complexities that have left the ambulance district somewhat in a gray area over the years, and it became clear to the committee the district is under-funded.

“The needs of the department in the areas of living quarters, office space, education and training, vehicles and aging equipment are a priority and must be accomplished to assure that the current level of excellent care can be continued,” states an Aug. 13 memo from the committee to the county.

The ballot question approved on Aug. 13 by the county commissioners asks “shall Aspen Ambulance District taxes be increased by up to $549,000 in 2015 and by such amounts as may be collected annually thereafter by a property tax levy of up to 0.501 mills; and shall the district be entitled to collect, retain, and spend the full revenues from the property tax levy of up to 0.501 mills regardless of whether the annual revenues from such levy exceed the revenue limitations contained in the Pitkin County home rule charter, state law or the state constitution?”

Second reading by the commissioners is set for Aug. 27. Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 4.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of local government. The Daily News published this story on Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...