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Littleton Fire Rescue is the last member of the old Littleton fire partnership yet to vote on whether to be fully included in South Metro Fire Rescue, after voters in Highlands Ranch and Littleton Fire Protection District approved inclusion in the large regional district in strongly one-sided votes on May 8.
The effort passed in LFPD with 302 votes in favor and 29 opposed, according to unofficial tallies. Voters in Highlands Ranch approved the measure with 1,075 votes in favor and 45 opposed. The votes represented only a tiny portion of registered voters in the two districts: Highlands Ranch has more than 63,000 registered voters, and LFPD is home to more than 54,000 registered voters
Effective Jan. 1, 2019, the two districts’ fire protection services will be absorbed by South Metro, a large consolidated district that already covers a vast swath of Arapahoe and Douglas counties, providing fire protection to more than a quarter-million residents in Parker, Lone Tree, Greenwood Village, much of Centennial, Cherry Hills Village and several other municipalities. The vote establishes South Metro Fire Rescue as the second-largest firefighting entity in Colorado, after Denver Fire.
Littleton Fire Protection District covers a large area surrounding Littleton proper, including Chatfield, Columbine Valley, western Centennial and the unincorporated area west of the city.
Highlands Ranch Metro District covers a sprawling area south of C-470 and east of Santa Fe Drive, stretching south of the Daniels Park area.
The vote is the culmination of efforts started last year by Highlands Ranch and LFPD, both of which announced they were cutting ties with the City of Littleton, with whom they had contracted for fire service for decades.
If the vote had failed, the districts would have begun contracting with South Metro for fire service anyway, paying the difference in cost out of their coffers and going before voters in each successive election continuing to seek inclusion.
The City of Littleton, now left without its partners, will face a similar vote for inclusion in South Metro’s coverage area this November. Like Highlands Ranch and LFPD, the city will begin contracting with South Metro in 2019 regardless of the vote outcome.
Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman responded to a phone message for comment with a statement issued through a city spokesperson, praising the outcome of the vote.
“It is reassuring to see that voters in Highlands Ranch and the Littleton Fire Protection District recognized the wisdom in unifying with South Metro,” Brinkman’s statement read. “We look forward to working closely with Littleton residents over the summer to provide more information and answer questions about the critical importance of Littleton joining our partners. Besides improved fire and emergency medical response with unification, Littleton will get the added value of redirecting funds towards street and infrastructure improvements. It is a win for everybody.”
The unification votes are good news for the firefighters currently stationed in LFPD and Highlands Ranch, said Joel Heinemann, president of the firefighter’s union.
“We’ve long said this will result in better service and better safety for our firefighters, because of South Metro’s greater resources and stability,” Heinemann said. “This vote establishes a long-term commitment. We won’t have to go back and revisit this every year.”
Firefighters currently stationed in Highlands Ranch and LFPD will become employees of South Metro in 2019, and will retain their current rank and pay.
Littleton Fire Rescue Chief Chris Armstrong and LFR spokeswoman Jackie Erwin did not respond to requests for comment.
The outcome of the vote is welcome news to Highlands Ranch Metro District, said community relations director Sherry Eppers.
“We’re looking forward to working with South Metro,” Eppers said. “This is a time of transition and opportunity for us, and in the long run it’s just a great chance to improve how we serve and protect our residents.”
The votes mean property tax increases for homeowners in the two districts: South Metro charges 9.25 mills for its services, whereas Highlands Ranch residents currently pay 7 mills toward fire service and LFPD residents pay 7.678 mills.
The difference means a monthly property tax increase of $1.35 per $100,000 of assessed home value in Highlands Ranch and 94 cents per month per $100,000 of home value in LFPD, according to documents published by the districts.
In return, the districts say, residents will receive long-term cost stability. LFPD’s board said it probably would have had to ask voters to increase property taxes to 10 mills or higher to stay with Littleton, whereas South Metro’s rate of 9.25 is not anticipated to change in the near future. Highlands Ranch said fire rescue services have climbed from 36 percent of its operating budget to 45 percent in 2017, and that unifying with South Metro halts the cost increases.
Residents also will receive increased fire services from South Metro, the districts say. Unlike Littleton, South Metro is accredited by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has an Insurance Services Office rating of 1 to Littleton’s 2. South Metro also plans to build and staff a new fire station in Highlands Ranch.
Unification of fire departments makes sense to take advantage of economies of scale, said South Metro Fire Chief Bob Baker.
“We’ve seen that unification of fire districts is occurring across the U.S. as it’s a way to improve services and create efficiencies — and this one is no different,” Baker said in a press release.
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