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Fighting fire with less

With the mill levy proposal defeated by voters, Colorado River Fire Rescue looks to possible service and personnel cuts to help balance budget

Colorado River Fire Rescue fire engines and emergency response vehicle stage on Railroad Avenue during the Carequest fire last fall. (Kyle Mills / Citizen Telegram)

Just over two weeks ago voters defeated Colorado River Fire Rescue’s mill levy by 250 votes. With roughly 3,700 ballots cast, 46.59% voted in favor, while 53.41% voted against. The levy would have helped maintain proper staffing levels as well as address equipment, apparatus, and facility needs.

CRFR ran the election process internally, which saved the district money.

“It was run with integrity, transparency, and honesty. I’m really proud of the work our staff did, not only in saving the money for not hiring it out externally, but doing such a good job running an election.” CRFR Chief Randy Callahan said. “We accept these results and are committed to service, we are broke but not broken. We still have our spirit, and our desire to serve, we have to figure out how to do it with the funding that is at hand.”

Callahan said that during last week’s virtual board meeting they began the discussion of where CRFR will go from here. The staff began working on formal proposals this week to bring back to the June board meeting.

“We simply don’t have enough money to fund our current service level, that’s our challenge,” Callahan said.

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The 2020 budget has total revenue at over $6.2 million and expenditures at over $8.22 million.

“When we presented the 2020 budget, we presented some options, the board made the decision to go one more year spending out of reserves, and try for a mill levy and if that didn’t happen then we will go into a balanced budget,” CRFR Chief Randy Callahan said. “We know we have a significant budget shortfall, and we’re going to have to make a lot of cuts.”

The department, which serves the communities of Rifle, Silt and New Castle, plans to have many discussions moving forward as they roll out a plan.

“It will be an action, not a reaction plan,” Callahan said. “The good news is that we did not hire for our open positions, waiting to see the results of this.” 

CRFR lost 10 employees to other fire districts and had six open positions that they had hoped to fill if the levy passed. With the attrition Callahan said it would mean less people on the street.

The fire district is currently carrying a minimum staffing of 11 people per day to cover the district that services 851-square-miles, 15.339 homes, and more than 25,000 residents, which Callahan said would probably go down to 9. Callahan cautiously said they will most likely lose a response company, but he still has hopes they will find a way to keep things the way they are.

FIRE SEASON IS HERE

Although service slowed down during the stay at home order, Callahan said CRFR are seeing a rise in calls as things begin to open up.

Crews have responded to a number of controlled burns that residents lost control of, which have resulted in the loss of a few structures and vehicles.

One of Callahan’s concerns with losing staffing is the volume of multiple calls at the same time that CRFR has been responding to recently.

“Fire is always a threat and it is increasing. We are expecting a drier week this week, as people get out and back into the mountains we expect things to increase,” Callahan said.

CRFR continues to face the challenge of the COVID-19 restrictions in calls and is looking to ensure incidents are kept to the initial attack to keep large fire camps out of the communities during the wildfire season.

“CRFR is a very resilient team, and they immediately shifted and started saying this is what we got, how do we do the best we can,” Callahan said. “I can’t say enough for the resiliency of the team, I don’t want to minimize the impact we are going to have, because it will be substantial, but it’s a team that says what can I do versus what can’t I do.”

kmills@postindependent.com


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