CARBONDALE — Officials with the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District warned fire district voters that rejection of last year’s tax hike proposal would mean cutbacks in the fire district’s budget and, ultimately, its ability to fight fires and rescue injured or ill residents.
Now, said two fire district officials, the fire board and departmental staff have a budget that trims costs, eliminates summertime seasonal firefighting positions, and cuts the department’s Wildfire Patrol, which sends firefighters out into the remote regions of the 320-square mile district to check conditions and, if possible, get a quick jump on a lightning strike fire or other blazes that can suddenly flare up in the hot summer months.
During a recent conversation, Fire Chief Ron Leach and Gene Schilling, chair of the fire district’s board of directors, said also that the loss of anticipated funding will mean equipment will not be replaced, training will not be funded, and there will be other effects that the public may or may not notice.
The department is trying to find ways to live within a 2014 budget of approximately $2 million, following voter rejection of a tax hike last November that would have injected roughly $1 million extra into the department’s budget to offset property-tax revenue declines over the past five years.
The department expects to have spent approximately $2.9 million in 2013, compared to roughly $3.2 million in revenues. More than $2.9 million of those revenues came from property and other taxes. More than $300,000 was to come from other sources, mostly from ambulance service fees and wildfire assistance contracts, according to the department’s budget.
For 2014, according to the budget, the department expects to bring in close to $2 million, reflecting a $1.2 million decline in revenues due to effects of the recession that began in 2008.
“All nonessential spending will be cut,” said Leach, describing an ongoing effort by the board and the staff to trim $1.2 million from the 2014 district budget.
“We’re going to make that $1.2 million up by finding $500,000 in budget cuts, and getting into our reserves for $700,000,” Leach continued, adding that the prospect of cutting that much from the budget of a critical public agency is “daunting.”
The department expects to have a reserve balance of approximately $1.9 million at the start of 2014, after subtracting the amount to be transferred to the general fund to help plug the budget gap.
Among the equipment and programs that will be either deferred or eliminated, according to Leach, are:
• The popular public classes in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), teaching people how to administer life-saving techniques in emergencies, will be eliminated.
• Certification and training programs, under which departmental firefighters are sent to outside agencies for training of different types, will be cut out altogether.
• The planned purchase of a new fire truck and ambulance will be deferred to a future year, and the old equipment will stay in use.
• The free Automated External Defibrillator maintenance and testing program, intended to provide support for businesses, schools and other entities to which the devices have been given, will be eliminated. That means the agencies, businesses and others who have AEDs will either have to pay for having them tested and maintained, or simply turn them back in to the Carbondale department.
• Recycling programs at the department’s station buildings will be eliminated, as will the department’s partnership with and funding for the CLEER (Clean Energy Economy for the Region), an energy efficiency advocacy organization active in Garfield County.
• Painting of remote fire substations in Missouri Heights and Redstone will be deferred.
Schilling said the heavy cutting has been done by the staff, after “the board ... just gave them the figures we’d like to see.”
Leach credited his department’s manager, Jenny Cutright, for doing much of the search-and-delete work on the expenditure side of the budget for the coming year.
According to Leach, the department will retain its paid staff of 20 people, although one person has quit and is not scheduled to be replaced.
He said he is counting on retention of the department’s 75 volunteers, who Leach said are dedicated to doing what needs to be done to prevent degradation of service levels to the public.
“The morale here is good,” Leach said, explaining that his paid staffers and his volunteers are “all on the same page” concerning the belt-tightening that will be the rule for next year, at least.
“The hard part is going to be making all this work,” he said, “to maintain this essential public service with less money and still provide a high level of service — to do more with less.”
Both Leach and Schilling said the department fully expects to go back to the voters, perhaps as early as next year or in 2015, with a new request for increased funding.
But before that happens, Leach said, “We’ve got to get better at telling our story.”
The department will begin holding public information sessions, starting in January, to acquaint voters with how the department functions and what its fiscal needs are, he said.
“We can dip into reserves for a couple of years,” Schilling said, “but at some point we won’t have any more reserves.”
And if voters again say no to the next request, “Then we’re going to have to look at significant stuff,” Schilling concluded.