Carbondale fire district voters to decide on 2-year tax hike
As ballots for the Nov. 3 election go out this week, voters in the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District will be asked to weigh in a mill levy increase that would provide $595,000 of additional funding for each of the next two years.
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.
After a master planning process and series of public meetings, the fire board voted 4-1 in August to go through with a 1.75 mill request, which would cost the owner of a $500,000 home roughly $70 annually.
Board member Carl Smith cast the dissenting vote and advocated going to voters in 2016. He later said he wouldn’t campaign against the mill levy after board made its decision, but that he will have suggestions on how the additional money would be budgeted.
According to Board Vice President Mike Kennedy, the public response to the proposal has been largely positive.
“Obviously people are always upset about taxes in general, but we’ve tried to make this as painless as possible by making it a small increase.” he said. “It was less than what either of the consultants had suggested.”
Coupled with a modest increase in property values, it’s enough to keep the district from dipping into reserves for its third consecutive year, and should also support required equipment updates, training, volunteer retention or even replacing positions that were cut during the recession. The district’s Initial Attack Program, which sends firefighters into high-risk areas during the summer for education and the potential for quick response, is also included in next year’s budget after being supported by private donations for the past two years.
The mill levy comes with a two-year sunset clause, an attempt to acknowledge objections from the last vote and give the district a chance to begin implementing its new master plan from a position of relative solvency.
“We thought it was prudent to stop the bleeding right now,” Kennedy said.
Fire Chief Ron Leach has seen the impact firsthand.
“The last three years have been challenging for the fire district,” he said. “We have kept our priorities straight. We’re blessed to have a dedicated, trained cadre of volunteers and employees, and we have focused on continuing to deliver high quality ambulance and fire service to the community.”
Despite the name, the majority of Carbondale fire’s calls are for medical situations. The district offers a paramedic ambulance service, which Leach described as “the standard of care in the U.S.” Paramedics undergo 1,200 hours of training, compared with a 110-hour EMT basic course, and are trained in advanced cardiac life support, emergency drug therapy and enhanced trauma procedures.
While the district has tried to cut costs, Leach said that there’s a minimum amount of funding to allow them to respond to every call, particularly when more than one comes in at once.
“When you’re dealing with emergency services, there has to be a certain amount of redundancy,” Leach said.
He doesn’t see running on reserves as a viable long-term option, either.
“It’s like eating your seed corn,” he observed.
Leach seemed to support the board’s decision to move forward.
“They were elected to make this judgments,” he said. “It’s the people’s taxes. Let ‘em vote.
“I’m optimistic for the future of the organization,” he added. “These funding issues will straighten themselves out and this fire district will be back on track.”
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