Carbondale fire district to seek tax increase in November
A proposal to increase tax support for the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District will appear on the November ballot, the board of directors decided in a 4-1 vote Wednesday evening.
The adopted motion, put forward by secretary and treasurer Louis Eller with the dissenting vote cast by Carl Smith, calls for a 1.75 mill increase, amounting to roughly $605,000 annually for two years. Director Bob Emerson estimated the annual cost for a $500,000 residential property at around $88.
The fire district rode out the worst of the recession with a 2 mill increase approved by the voters in 2011. When the increase expired in 2013, the fire district tried for a longer-term approach — 6 mills with no expiration. The measure failed, dropping the district to 5.903 total mills while property values continued to fall.
In response, the district slashed the budget, cut three full-time positions and dipped into reserves to keep things running. It also solicited public input and initiated a master planning process to provide some direction.
The message from Almont Associates, the consultant that drafter the master plan study adopted last week, was clear: Without more funding, the level of service is doomed to decline.
With board members and attendees in agreement on the necessity of a mill levy override, discussion at Wednesday’s three-hour special meeting centered mostly on when, how much and how long.
Eller’s initial motion called for a four-year sunset in an attempt to satisfy the public’s desire to reassess the situation if property values continue to increase with the district’s need for financial stability. He also advocated specific phrasing for how the money would be spent, ideally on replacing cut firefighter positions, providing seasonal help for wildland firefighting — an effort that has been made possible by private donors in recent years — capital improvements and replenished reserves.
“The public has said very clearly they are satisfied with the current level of service and are willing to fund it,” he said.
Board President Gene Schilling advocated a two-year sunset to allow valuations a chance to stabilize before the district attempts a long-term funding solution, but agreed with Eller that the item should be on the 2015 ballot.
‘STOP DWELLING’ ON DEFEAT
Vice President Mike Kennedy also pushed for immediate action.
“We’ve been running in the red for a long time, and we do need to move forward,” he said. “We owe it to the citizens of our district and we owe it to our employees.”
Kennedy dismissed the idea that the fire district needed to rebuild trust or credibility, asserting that the 2013 mill levy lost simply because it was too large and lacked a set expiration.
“It’s time to stop dwelling on that election,” he said. “We’ve done our master plan, we’ve done the homework that we needed to do. What we heard from the consultants was the longer we wait, the more we need to ask for.”
Smith didn’t approve of the stop-gap approach.
“The reality is we got a master plan last week that is over 200 pages long, and we’re trying to make a decision on how to spend that money one week later,” he said. “I’m not opposed to a mill levy increase, but I want to be able to go to the citizens and say this is what it’s going to accomplish.”
He advocated a carefully thought-out four-year item for a 2016 ballot, a position echoed by several members of the master plan steering committee.
“The we-need-money argument is hollow,” Joanne Teeple told the board. “Do the work, select the elements of value. Then, and only then, schedule your election.”
Tom Flynn reminded those present that only 42 percent of respondents to a recent survey said they would pay more for the same service, while 26 percent said they didn’t know.
“Those are the people that need to be reached in order to pass the mill levy,” he said.
‘NOW IS THE TIME’
Others in the community were disinclined to wait.
“I think now is the time to ask,” Dan Hardin said. “I’ve trusted you for 27 years. I think it’s your responsibility to take this step.”
Mark Luttrell agreed.
“You can’t plan until you know how much money you’re going to have,” he said. “I would much rather see them have too much money and not go for another mill levy than have not enough money and have someone die as a result.”
Emerson, like Schilling and Kennedy, advocated immediate action and disputed the assertion that more preparation was needed.
“The voters have trusted this board and this staff to spend money wisely,” he said. “I don’t think they want to know every line item in the budget to vote on it.”
He encouraged any community members looking for more transparency to browse through the master plan, available online at tinyurl.com/cdalefireplan or in print at the fire station.
He also viewed 1.75 mills as a relatively small ask that wouldn’t even restore funding to its pre-recession levels.
Eller was persuaded to drop the sunset clause to two years in an effort to address the need in the short term while leaving the door open for a more informed long-term solution. The final measure will also be more generally worded to emphasize the need for more funding to maintain service and restore solvency.
“The voters deserve to have the opportunity to decide what the future’s going to be,” Emerson said. “Essentially, they own this district.”
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