Carbondale fire district, a different perspective
We are writing in response to Allyn Harvey’s column in the Post Independent on Feb. 19, which was critical of the Carbondale Rural & Fire Protection District. We are members of the fire district board but are writing as individuals and not on behalf of the board.
The district is made up of 320 square miles in Garfield County, from Westbank Subdivision and up to Colorado Mountain College’s Spring Valley Campus, east to the Eagle County Line, including much of Missouri Heights, and south through Pitkin County to Redstone and to Marble in Gunnison County. There are 18 paid staff members and approximately 65 volunteers in the district.
The district provides 24/7 paramedic level emergency medical services, which, in the 2004 election, the district taxpayers indicated was the level of service desired. In addition to EMS, the district provides fire protection, back country rescue, swift water rescue, traffic control, wildfire mitigation, safety checks, building inspections, and EMS services at Mountain Fair, the Carbondale rodeo series and at dozens of sporting events every year.
Prior to 2014, the district budget was approximately $3.2 million per year, following the 2004 vote when voters approved increased service levels, an upgraded operations building and a new headquarters building, as well as additional equipment. The district revenues are generated almost entirely from property taxes. As a result of the recession, property tax values in the district declined about 40 percent, as did tax revenues. Despite this, the district has managed to maintain the level of service that the taxpayers desired, financed through short-term mill levy increases. However, in 2013, a proposed long-term mill-levy increase was rejected. Even so, the district has continued to provide first-class EMS and fire protection services.
Allyn’s assertion that no significant budget cuts were made after the 2013 election is incorrect. As a result of the nearly $1.2 million decline in revenues, district expenditures were reduced by some $500,000 in 2014. Three full-time paid positions were eliminated, capital purchases and building and equipment maintenance were postponed, and funding for the advance wildfire protection program was eliminated, along with other cuts. The plan was to use $700,000 in reserves in 2014 to make up the shortfall. However, through additional cuts made during the year, the district came in approximately $95,000 under budget and reduced the use of reserves. The 2015 budget is similar to 2014 by maintaining the same cuts, along with a plan to use up to $600,000 in reserves, if necessary. However, through additional cuts during the year, the use of reserves is likely to be lower.
Allyn alleges that “Leach and the fire board have created a professional department, and in the process pushed the work of many volunteers to the side.” The district is proud of the volunteers who put their lives on the line for their community. The volunteers show up and help out when they can. However, they have jobs and families and other things that may prevent them from responding to a call. They all have to be trained and have protective gear ($2,500 to outfit one firefighter), and the training requirements are daunting. If you need an EMT or have a fire at your house, you want the responders to be well-trained and -equipped. Emergency calls often must be staffed by paid employees because the volunteers may not be available. When there are multiple calls at the same time, the problem can get exponentially worse. The value of the volunteers cannot be emphasized enough.
Allyn complains that the district board members are paid too much. Board members are entitled to be paid $75/meeting attended. Allyn notes that one board member did not accept payment in 2014. Actually, at least three of the five board members chose not to be paid. The time spent by a board member is much greater than just attending meetings. It also includes preparation for meetings, attending public functions, dealing with staff issues and more.
The board determined unanimously that to get the best master plan for the fire district, two consultants should be used: one consultant with extensive fire and EMS accreditation experience and one firm with local knowledge to complete the public outreach portion. Six consultants submitted proposals. Firms were interviewed and the selection was made accordingly. Mark Chain’s group consists of four consultants (Mark Chain Consulting, Lamont Planning Services, Footsteps Marketing for website and online work, RRC Associates of Denver for financial). Mark Chain’s experience as a district volunteer and former board member, and Mark and Leslie being longtime Carbondale residents and planners, are a plus. Almont Associates is well-known for fire and EMS accreditation work. They will investigate every detail of the district staffing, operations, equipment, buildings, levels of service, etc., and make recommendations. The consultants will work together and produce a first-class master plan. The master plan steering committee will not “shoulder most of the work,” but will be an advisory group to help make sure that public interests are being addressed.
Allyn questions the need for the 100-foot ladder truck purchased in 2012 because the “tallest building is about 35 feet.” The real issue with a ladder truck is not so much height, but reach. Often the fire itself or other physical limitations require the truck to be located some distance away, where a truck with a shorter ladder would not be able to apply water to a fire from above. The purchase was a good deal for the district. The ladder truck was a dealer demonstrator vehicle, fully warranted with new equipment throughout, at a price of slightly more than half the cost of a new model, and with favorable financing.
Acquisition of this truck helped the district maintain a low ISO insurance rating, which translates to lower property insurance costs throughout the district. Allyn seems to think that the district should not spend funds (which he incorrectly estimates as “millions of tax dollars”) to benefit owners in remote areas, such as Spring Valley, Missouri Heights, Redstone and Marble and in between, by keeping their insurance premiums on an equal basis as those of in-town residents. However, since property taxes are assessed and paid uniformly throughout the district, shouldn’t the remote taxpayer get the same district benefits as those in town?
Trying to balance the property taxes that people pay and the level of services that people want is a difficult job. The district has been doing it since 1953 with very good success. It’s about saving lives and property, and the staff and volunteers do an excellent job of that. They should be commended for their dedication and professionalism. They should also be supported with the best equipment and the best training available. After all, when you call 911, you need and expect the very best. You get that in this fire district.
We welcome public input and ideas. Come to the board meetings on the second Wednesday of the month. Tell the board what you like or what you don’t like. We want to hear that feedback. If you support the district, please speak up and say so.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
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