Without budget fix, Carbondale fire district faces drop in service
As Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District’s master planning process nears completion, consultant Almont Associates has a clear message for the fire board: Without more funding, the level of service is doomed to decline.
Carbondale fire, which covers an area from Missouri Heights to Marble and near Spring Valley to near El Jebel, made some cuts after voters shot down a mill levy increase in 2013. With property values still well below prerecession levels, it probably won’t be enough.
“You’ve got a balanced budget through time, but you’re burning through your reserves at a pretty high rate. … There’s not a whole lot of room left in that,” said Almont Executive Fire Officer Stuart Mcelhaney. “If you continue doing what you’re doing right now, you’re OK through about 2018. By 2019, you’re significantly below where you need to be.”
Almont presented a master plan overview this week based on months of study and community feedback. An initial draft is available at carbondalefire.org, and an updated version will be presented to the board on Aug. 7.
The document takes an in-depth look at strengths, weaknesses, potential opportunities and potential threats.
The district’s response time of less than 10 minutes stacked up well against others in Colorado despite some difficult terrain, and its ISO rating, which affects insurance costs, came out better than most of Colorado and in the top third of districts nationwide.
However, the letter also concludes that significant changes are necessary to maintain the level of service people in the district currently enjoy.
“If the district continues to move forward under its current arrangement, levels of service will decrease and impacts to the community will be realized,” it said.
To overcome that gap, the district must either cut spending — which would almost certainly mean reduced services — or increase income.
Either could be a challenge.
Already, around one in six ambulance or fire calls in the area occur concurrently. Cuts could undermine the district’s ability to deal with multiple incidents at once, which are likely to become more common as population increases.
Feedback suggests that despite that most residents don’t want a reduction of service, but the 2.5 mill increase Almont identified as necessary to maintain it might be hard to swallow.
“Oftentimes, community expectations run headlong into community willingness to fund,” said Mcelhaney. “One of the things that the fire service is really bad about is educating the public on what we do and what it takes to do what we do.”
Budgeting is only part of the scope of the hefty master plan. Some potential issues — like staff concerns about board members serving as volunteers — are a matter of policy shift, not funding. Almont Technical Director Keith Chapman encouraged the district to undergo a self assessment for through the Center for Public Safety Excellence, regardless of whether it completes the international accreditation process.
Still, he realized that a small fire department can’t do everything.
“This is our recommendation to you, but it’s up to you all to set the standards,” he said. “There are pieces of this you may choose never to implement.”
Mark Chain, whose consulting company is putting together the public outreach section of the plan, agreed.
“You want them to be a living document that flows over time,” he said. “You don’t just accept it and then you’re done. This is just the beginning. The board will be adjusting year by year.”
Still, most members of the board seemed eager to move forward. Although Carl Smith pushed for more time for public comment, his fellows agreed to consider a final draft on Aug. 12.
“I’m anxious to see the final product and to take action on it,” said Bob Emerson. “The input has been coming in for months and months, and it’s time to get a document that we can review and approve.”
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