Carbondale fire district seeks status quo funding
To keep operations running at the status quo, the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District this fall is asking voters to approve an extension of its current property tax rate, which is otherwise scheduled to sunset.
The fire district’s proposal is not an increase in property taxes, but a continuation of the property tax rate the fire district has had since 2015. Approval would maintain that revenue for another three years.
If the fire district’s extension doesn’t pass, the department will be looking at a $633,000 reduction in revenue. Fire Chief Ron Leach said that losing that revenue will be detrimental to his department, a fire protection district covering 300 square miles encompassing about 15,000 residents.
Responding quickly to fires, medical emergencies and rescue calls requires training, certified personnel and equipment, said Leach.
“Basically, this will allow the fire district to maintain its current level of service, allow us to replace needed equipment and allow us to maintain our training programs for fire fighters and paramedics.” Carbondale fire puts its “turn-out time” at 4 minutes for ambulance calls. And these response capabilities also help get a lower insurance rating for the coverage area and therefore reduced fire insurance premiums.
It’s also possible the fire district would have to reduce its staff to make ends meet if its revenue is reduced. The fire district currently has 21 paid staffers, 14 of whom are first responders.
Leach said he couldn’t give an exact number of positions that would have to be eliminated, but the lion’s share of the budget is personnel. The fire district’s general fund is about $3 million per year, and about $2.4 million of that goes to personnel. So that reduction would have to come from somewhere, and it would ultimately come out of people, said the fire chief.
Losing $633,000 would, not immediately but eventually, degrade the number of paid responders.
“And we’ll have to live with that budget for two years,” as the county assessor operates on a two-year cycle, said Leach.
The fire district has also been seeing lots of concurrent calls, where responders are dispatched to two or three incidents at the same time, which puts more pressure on the district to have more responders available, said the fire chief.
Without the renewal, the fire district would also have to put its capital spending on hold, so needed replacement of equipment would be set back. Jenny Cutright, the fire district’s public information officer, said the district has already delayed the replacement schedule for much of its equipment, a lingering impact of reduced property tax revenues during the recession.
This is emergency response equipment, medical equipment and communications equipment.
All of that needs to be on a replacement cycle, “and when we don’t get funding, it throws everything off,” said Leach.
But even if this extension is approved by voters, Leach says that it’s difficult to say now whether the fire district will be in this same position in three years, needing to ask for another extension. That’s going to depend largely on the economy, on the political climate and how property values are doing.
“I really don’t know, but a permanent level of funding, in my opinion, is the best way to fund these districts,” he said.
When the funding is uncertain like this, if you’re only getting funding every two to three years at a time, you can’t do any planning, he said. “It’s almost hand to mouth.” Being dependent on property tax and therefore at the mercy of the economy, “that’s hard to do with the economy going up and down. We’re still trying to claw our way out of the recession,” he said.
And even with the increased funding, the fire district is not sitting on a luxurious budget. “We’re really very frugal with these tax dollars,” said Leach.
Homeowners will continue to pay about $55 per $100,000 of assessed valuation to the fire district, while commercial properties will pay about $222 per $100,000.
“We’re not asking for any increase in the mill levy; we’re asking for a status quo budget,” Leach said. “This is an essential public service that needs to be funded. It’s the community’s fire and ambulance service we’re discussing here.”