Column: Carbondale fire district tax is a rush job
I’m not going to vote for the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District’s proposed two-year tax increase, and I don’t think you should either.
The men and women who work or volunteer at the fire district do a great job and deserve the community’s full support on so many levels. But the leadership continues to display a mind-boggling insensitivity to the needs and expectations of the people who rely on the department and pay taxes to support it.
Put bluntly, this tax increase feels like a rush job.
The district has just completed and adopted a master plan that when downloaded from the website is 343 pages long. And when I say “just,” I mean just. The plan was completed in early August and adopted by the fire district board of directors a few days later. There was virtually no opportunity for the public to review the plan, much less provide input.
Another week or so after that, the district board voted 4-1 to ask for a short-term increase in property taxes. The four voting in favor were Gene Schilling, Mike Kennedy, Lou Eller and Bob Emerson. The dissenting vote came from Carl Smith, who was elected by an overwhelming margin last year because he challenged the status quo of how the department is run.
Smith voted against asking for a tax increase because he thinks the community ought to have time to review the master plan and provide direction to himself and the others charged with overseeing the district.
I spent four hours this week reading the master plan and didn’t even make it halfway through. But I did read the first section, a report from Almont Associates, a consulting firm out of Florida, which contains 77 recommendations addressing topics like staffing, billing, capital investments and levels of service. Some recommendations would cost more money, some would save money. Many are interrelated, and need to be considered carefully before being adopted or rejected.
So reason No. 1 for voting no on this tax increase is that the public has not had a chance to comment on the master plan. For that matter, the fire district hasn’t had time to consider it either. The leadership owes it to the community and the department to slow down and come up with a plan for our future. Then they can ask us for money.
Reason No. 2 to vote no is because the four-vote majority on the district board and Chief Ron Leach are ignoring the advice of many — if not most — of the 20-25 citizens who have invested time and energy over the last two years to help the district chart a path for its future.
The eight citizens on Master Plan Steering Committee recommended in July that the district hold off on an election until November 2016. Many of us who sat on the Citizen’s Task Force in 2014 also believe the district should have a solid plan in place before asking for more money, and have recommended asking for additional taxes in 2016.
I am confident that many from those two committees, myself included, would gladly reconvene to assist the district leadership in implementing the master plan and determining just how much money is really needed over the next six-10 years.
By its own calculations, the fire district will collect $371,000 more in 2016 than it did in 2015. Districtwide, property values are estimated to be up more than 23 percent, at least in terms of how taxes are calculated. In some neighborhoods, including mine, they are up more than 80 percent.
That is a decent amount of money. Certainly it is enough to buy the district another year to dig into the reports and master plan, collaborate with more than two dozen educated and informed citizens and forge a path for the future that is both affordable and visionary.
By rejecting this tax increase, voters will light a fire under the feet of the district leaders and get them to focus on the overall health of the department.
Reason No. 3 to vote against the tax increase this year: Our fire district needs our help, but not our money — yet.
Allyn Harvey is on the Carbondale Board of Trustees and was a member of the 2014 Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District Citizen Task Force. He writes a monthly column for the Post Independent.
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