Call volume to the Telluride Fire Protection District has climbed 30 percent since 2017, but the busy agency's property-tax supported budget has dropped - to $119,000 next year from $250,000 last year.
Chief John Bennett has delayed replacing 30-year-old fire engines. He has cut and trimmed everywhere he can.
Now, for the first time since 1996, he's asking voters to allow his district to adjust the tax rate on homes.
"We have not run into a situation where we've had to push the panic button. But it's time to decide about what services we can offer," said Bennett, the longtime leader of the rural fire district. "We've been respectful of the taxpayer, while at the same moment being proactive in taking care of our people and giving them the tools they need to provide emergency services. It's a real thin line."
For many rural fire districts across Colorado, recent declines in property tax revenue have forced them to limit the capacity to respond to emergencies. They have crossed that thin line. And, in record numbers, they are asking voters on Tuesday for help.
Hefty ballots landed in mountain-town mailboxes last week with community leaders asking for an array of property and sales tax increases to support fire districts, affordable housing, airline programs and community mental health.
In Bayfield, that includes a mill-levy increase by the Pine River Library District, and a request to "de-Gallagherize" by the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District.
The Ignacio Cemetery District also is requesting a small mill-levy increase so it can afford to maintain five cemeteries in the area.
On top of an extra-busy state ballot, voters across the Western Slope are deciding whether to allow special districts - specifically, dozens of fire protection districts along with a handful of library, health care and recreation districts - to adjust mill levies as property tax revenue plummets under the state's Gallagher Amendment.
Among those districts is the Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District, which covers western La Plata County including Hesperus, Kline, Marvel and Redmesa.
The district has been dipping into its reserves for the past several years as property tax revenue it receives decreases based on requirements in the Gallagher Amendment. In 2017, Fort Lewis Mesa's property tax revenue dropped $30,000 from 2016 collections based on the effects of the amendment.
The 36-year-old Gallagher Amendment requires that the state's harvest of property taxes is 45 percent residential and 55 percent commercial and other non-residential. Coupled with the 1992 Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR, that means when commercial tax revenue climbs, residential property tax rates go down, and any subsequent attempt to increase property taxes to former levels requires voter approval.
Back when voters approved Gallagher, residential property tax rates were more than 20 percent. Today, that rate is 7.2 percent and will drop lower next year. (The Colorado Fiscal Institute made an informative YouTube video on the impact of Gallagher on fire districts. They called it "The Gallagher Fire.")
That steep decline in property tax revenue has throttled rural special taxing districts that depend on slivers of the residential mill levy to support police, fire, water, libraries, higher education, recreation, hospitals and emergency medical services. Rural districts, unlike urban districts, don't have large swaths of commercial property supporting their budgets.
State lawmakers have grappled with potential fixes, but nothing has happened.
A state commission this spring pondered several solutions to the Gallagher versus TABOR constitutional quandary and plans to propose, among a few ideas, a full repeal of Gallagher to legislators in the upcoming session in January. That proposal comes with an accompanying plan to divide the state into eight zones where administrators can adjust residential rates across their regions.
But after years of deep cuts, many special districts aren't sitting around and waiting.
From the Eastern Plains to the Front Range and Western Slope, districts are going to voters and asking for relief.
Some are requesting to retain additional revenues under TABOR. But most are asking for the ability to adjust mill levies under Gallagher.
Specifically, they are asking voters to allow district managers to increase the mill levy to "offset revenue losses from refunds, abatement and changes to the percentage of actual valuation used to determine assessed valuation," read the dozens of district ballot measures across the Western Slope.
"While we are hopeful that something will happen at the state level, we also have spent the past two years encouraging and educating our members to look at a local solution," said Ann Terry, executive director of the Special District Association of Colorado, which represents 1,823 of the state's more than 2,500 special taxing districts. "Special districts are fearful and rightfully so, that they are going to have reduced revenues in the near future. And that's on top of years of cuts. You get to a point where you have to cut the fat all the way down to bone and what are you left with? Next to nothing."
Terry's association does not track special district ballot questions. Neither does the Colorado Secretary of State's Office.
A scan of sample ballots on the Western Slope show more than 40 special districts seeking relief from Gallagher, including six districts in Pitkin County and eight in Routt County alone.
After the election, special districts will report results of any election to the Department of Local Affairs.
While hard numbers are fleeting, few can remember a ballot with more requests from desperate districts.
"Not that I can recall," said Christian Reece, the executive director of Club 20, the venerable coalition of leaders, businesses and governments from 22 Western Colorado counties. "There are a ton of measures that ultimately speak to how Gallagher is not working and needs reform."
The special districts are not alone in their pleas for more tax revenue. Governments across the mountains are asking for help in addressing growing pains in resort communities.