Column: Watch the Carbondale fire board closely
Here are four reasons to be worried about the management at the Carbondale Rural & Fire Protection District:
1. The district has made no significant cuts to its 2015 budget despite the fact voters overwhelmingly rejected its proposed tax increase less than two years ago. Instead, board members dipped into reserves to the tune of a whopping $700,000 to cover this year’s budget. Last year they tapped reserves for more than $600,000.
2. Two of the five-member, elected board that oversees the fire department’s budget and management, Gene Schilling and Michael Kennedy, are trying to muzzle fellow board member Carl Smith, the only one who has questioned the district’s direction. They spent 15 minutes at last week’s fire district board meeting telling Smith that his comments about the budget and purchasing decisions are out of line.
Seriously, the guys who misread voter sentiment and got the district into the mess it’s in are ganging up on the guy who was elected specifically to bring a different view to the table.
3. The fire board hired one of its own, a former member who lost his seat when Smith was elected, to lead the master plan process that will guide the district’s spending and direction for at least 10 years.
Mark Chain, who is partnering with Leslie Lamont on this project, is certainly qualified to do the work, but that’s not the point. He is the fire board incumbent who lost his seat to in the last election. It’s a curious if not questionable selection.
He and Lamont are going to have to demonstrate a reasonable level of independence to be successful and help the district regain the confidence of the voters.
4. Fire board member Lou Eller wants a yet-to-be named volunteer master plan committee to shoulder most of the work that lies ahead. On two occasions at last week’s fire board meeting, Eller said the committee must meet at least twice a month in order to have a master plan ready for adoption by mid-summer.
The reason for the hurry is because the district is burning through reserves. The board is working toward a tax question in next fall’s election, and a completed master plan is part of its election strategy.
We pay the fire district board $800 a month to meet once a month, sometimes for less than half an hour. Eller and his fellow board members (Smith, notably, is not taking his monthly stipend currently) need to do the heavy lifting here. Kennedy and Smith will be on the committee, fortunately, but still.
So here are a two tips for keeping track of what’s going on:
1. Follow Smith, which really means follow the money. Smith had several good ideas about how to save money in the near term so the budget reserves would hold up. One idea was not to promote people to top level management positions when they open up. Chief Ron Leach has ignored that advice and filled multiple top positions.
Smith also questioned equipment purchases and resource allocation and again was ignored by the board. If you want to know how the budget might be cut without compromising service, he is worth listening to.
2. Keep a critical eye on the master planning process.
After sitting through the most recent fire district board meeting, it feels like the fire board and the chief want the master plan to be a public relations exercise more than a critical look at the direction of the district. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear I’m not.
As a member of the citizen advisory committee that was appointed in the wake of the 2013 election debacle (the district wanted to double our property taxes, which was resoundingly rejected), it is clear that big changes are happening at the department that have not been discussed publicly.
Leach and the fire board have created a professional department, and in the process pushed the work of many volunteers to the side. A number of those highly paid professionals burn up tens of thousands of our tax dollars on training and subsequently leave for larger departments.
Leach and the previous board spent more than $700,000 on a used 100-foot platform truck in a district where the tallest building is about 35 feet.
Further, millions of tax dollars have been spent in order to provide the same level of service for remote areas like Missouri Heights as in densely populated areas like Carbondale, Redstone and West Bank.
People who live far from towns understand they are trading convenience and a certain level of safety for tranquility, space and a view. They know when they call 911 it will take awhile for an ambulance or fire truck to show up.
Unfortunately, the fire district’s management doesn’t appear to understand that trade-off … yet.
Allyn Harvey, a Carbondale town trustee, writes a column that appears on the third Thursday of each month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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