It’s ill-advised to ask voters in the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District to raise taxes in November after they rejected an increase last year, a citizen task force decided at its fifth and final meeting Monday night.
It was suggested that the district, which has been crippled by plummeting post-recession revenue, should complete a master plan before asking voters again to approve a higher property tax rate.
The committee will present its recommendations to the fire district board Aug. 4.
Many task force members expressed doubt that a mill levy increase could pass in 2014.
“I see a disconnect between the fire department and the people that support the fire department,” said task force member Joanne Teeple.
She acknowledged that strong public outreach and a sunset clause on a new levy might be enough to win support by November, but reminded the committee of the $15,000 cost of putting an item on the ballot.
Task force member Davis Farrar said waiting for the master plan would help provide long-term direction as well as building credibility with voters.
“Until we know where we’re going, we’re rudderless,” he said.
In the meantime, the fire district will have to further cut expenses and draw from its reserve fund to cope with decreased funding.
The district’s property valuation, which is assessed every two years, dropped to $276.4 million this year from $341.4 million in 2012 — it was at $472.8 million in 2010.
The fire department relies on property tax revenue, with rates set by thousandths of valuation, or mills. Carbondale’s current operating budget is 5.9 mills, or slightly less than $100 for a home with a taxable value of $200,000. That’s about middle of the road for the area, with rates ranging from 3.3 mills in Grand Valley to 7.8 mills in Basalt.
The Carbondale district weathered the worst of the recession with a short-term mill levy increase in 2011, but failed to pass a new one in 2013. The result was a $1.2 million hole in the 2014 budget. The district took $700,000 out of its reserve fund and trimmed $500,000 from expenses. The largest cuts came in spending on personnel, down $350,000, including three full-time positions.
“We tightened our belt on all budget categories,” said Fire Chief Ron Leach.
Next year’s cuts will likely be even deeper. The board can’t withdraw another $700,000 from its reserve if it holds to the policy of keeping six months worth of operating expenses in the bank. Even dropping the reserve to three months, as some on the task force suggested, is unlikely to cover the cost.
Task force members also discussed the possibility of combining with another district to save money, an approach recently adopted by fire departments in Rifle, Silt and New Castle.
Leach said such mergers have been a trend, but he’s not sold on the idea.
“We’re exploring that option, but the amount of savings to the taxpayer is yet to be determined,” he said.
The next property tax assessment doesn’t hold much hope, either. At the projected increase of 5 percent, the district would only see an extra $100,000 in 2016.
That means programs including the Wildfire Preparedness and Prevention Program, which was resurrected by private donations halfway through the 2014 season, will likely be on the chopping block again in coming years.
Although the department has experienced some isolated incidents of delayed response since the cuts took effect, Leach remains optimistic.
“We’re going to do the best we can with what we’ve got to provide the highest level of service we can to this community,” he said, calling the task force’s recommendation against a 2014 tax vote “a wise decision.”
“I want to thank all the task force members for helping the fire district and the community over the last five months,” he added. “I respect and appreciate their work.”