Some years, the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District election is a blip on the town’s political radar. There are no term limits, so many of the faces stay the same.
This year, Gary McElwee and Carl Smith will challenge incumbents Mark Chain, Mike Kennedy and Gene Schilling for three seats. The two remaining seats, held by Louis E. Eller Jr. and Robert Emerson, are not up for election this year.
Ballots go out as early as April 14.
There is no shortage of issues. Last November, voters struck down a mill levy measure that would have represented 40 percent of the district’s budget. Historically, the community has generally voted in favor of such measures.
Just months before the election, Carbondale hosted the incident command center for the Red Canyon Fire in a state of the art facility paid for by a previous mill levy increase and bond issue.
In March, the district hosted the first of five meetings with its new advisory task force, a group of 17 citizens who will have a chance to influence the fire department’s financial planning and public education program. After the first meeting, Fire Chief Ron Leach said he was optimistic about the process.
Volunteer Jeff Wadley was less impressed.
“The task force is in reaction to the failed mill levy issue,” he said. “If the current board had been proactive there would not be the need.”
Wadley helped organize a pair of “who ya gonna call” meetings earlier this year. The meetings were intended to build awareness about the election, find and inform potential candidates about the public’s outlook, and encourage communication between the community and the fire board.
Several theories about the mill levy’s failure have been put forth, from the lack of a “sunset clause” specifying the duration of the taxation increase, to simple lack of information. Fire officials suspect many voters are unaware of what services the district offers — including an ambulance service that comprises the majority of their calls.
The task force won’t be finished with their assessment until July, so the election is likely to be an earlier indicator of where the public stands.
Mark Chain has been on the fire board since 2006. He worked for the town of Carbondale for 22 years and served as planning director. He was inspired to volunteer with the fire department after an ambulance ride with his wife. Since then, he says he’s tried to follow the 2004-2014 master plan. If re-elected, he intends to continue “maintaining the levels of service unless there’s correction from a lot of people — including that citizen task force.”
Looking forward, Chain said his planning background helps him “see issues that are evolving.” He worries that both staffing cuts and use of reserve funds will undermine the fire department’s ability to combat summer wildfires. He said he feels the district’s aging population relies on a high standard of medical care and paramedic level ambulance service. With costs for training, fuel, and supplies going up, that takes money. He was against a sunset clause in last year’s mill levy.
“As long as our economy’s volatile maybe that has to be part of it,” he reflected, “but I wanted to make sure our funding was secure.”
“A lot of people told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s the fire department, everybody knows what you do,” he added. “Well, they don’t.”
He hopes he can help fix that.
“I’m accessible,” he said. “I’ve been in the community a long time, and I’m pretty approachable.”
Mike Kennedy was a volunteer for 25 years and has been on the board since 1994. He’s proud of the district’s level of service and wants to keep it that way.
“Our belief is that the taxpayers of the district don’t want to go backwards from what they approved in 2004,” he said.
Kennedy is concerned about the effect the mill levy’s failure will have.
“We’re supported completely by property taxes,” he said. “Over the last few years we’ve seen a huge change in what properties are assessed at, and that’s hit us by more than 40 percent.”
As for how to combat the shortfall, he’s waiting on a recommendation from the task force. Community involvement is key, Kennedy says.
“We’ve probably had two or three citizens come to our meetings in the last five years,” he observed. “They’re the second Wednesday of every month, and the public’s always welcome.”
Kennedy emphasized the large role of the ambulance service and the need for someone to be available when someone needs help while the first ambulance is already out on call.
“Our main philosophy is to try and provide the best service possible for the people of the district — EMS and fire both,” he concluded.
Gary McElwee was a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician for Carbondale Fire for 10 years. He is a long-serving member of two other local boards, is the general manager of the Elk Springs Subdivision and has “30 years’ experience as a department head and director of radiology in hospitals responsible for developing and implementing multimillion-dollar budgets.”
McElwee thinks the current board is “out of touch. ... The board of directors are in a difficult position and need to meet the expectations of the taxpayers, and that begins with communication.”
He called the fire task force “a reactive step but nonetheless a step in the right direction for Carbondale Fire,” but said it’s too early in the process to see what impact it will make. He feels the board needs to be more proactive, citing the need for a master plan, which he says was promised as part of a 2011 mill levy request and never really delivered. He plans to “review and initiate any changes that may be needed in the current budget, begin planning for 2015 with short- and long-term goals, [and] re-establish the relationship between the board of directors and the general public.”
Gene Schilling has been on the fire board since 1992 and has volunteered since he was a kid. He holds badge No. 1 for the district. He also serves as chief of police, a school bus driver and president of the Carbondale Lions Club.
Schilling’s primary focus on the board is ISO, a rating which is commonly used to set insurance costs within a fire district.
“Would you rather pay $50 a year in taxes or $100 on your homeowners insurance?” he asked.
Schilling said the district has tried to cut costs without impacting quality of service. They purchased a used demonstrator ladder truck with low mileage for hundreds of thousands of dollars less than a new model, and took a similar approach when buying a generator.
“My belief is that we’ll have to go back to the voters again,” Schilling said of the mill levy.
He added that a sunset clause isn’t the only way to respond to potential excess funds. In the past, the district has used good years to purchase infrastructure. In the current economic climate, Schilling says he’d vote for a temporary tax credit.
“The voters have to have enough confidence in the board of directors,” he said.
Carl Smith has decades of experience in fire and emergency service. He was part of the Aurora Fire Department for 23 years and retired as deputy chief. He moved to the district because he was hired by the fire department as part of an effort to improve the EMS system and develop a paramedic program. He’s also a part-time EMT instructor in Aspen.
“I think they could use some broader perspective,” he said of the existing board.
He cites his role as a citizen representative of the State Emergency Medical and Trauma Services Advisory Council (SEMTAC) as proof that he can think nationally as well as locally. Smith is in favor of sunset clause of three to five years on any future mill levies, noting the time it takes to put together resources.
“It takes one or two years to spec out a piece of fire equipment, and a year to train an EMT to a paramedic level,” he explained.
He supports the idea of a tax credit if income is over projection. He also thinks the fire district could use more clearly stated goals and budgeting, with a complete and publicly available annual report.
“The public needs to be clearly made aware of what quality of service will be provided in 2015 if there’s no change. This last election, they didn’t know what they were voting for,” he said. “A mill levy increase should be like going to the fire department store.”