Guest opinion: Carbondale fire tax request not a ‘rush job’
We are writing in response to Allyn Harvey’s column in the Post Independent on Sept. 17 stating his opinion that the Carbondale Fire District vote on a mill levy increase is a “rush job.” We are writing as individuals and not on behalf of the board.
Property tax revenue is the primary source of funding for the district. As a result of the recession and decline in property values, in 2014 the district’s tax revenue declined about 42 percent from 2013, or about $1.2 million. A Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) was formed to analyze and provide input to the district, and Mr. Harvey was a member.
CAC ultimately made several recommendations: 1) complete a master plan; 2) cut expenditures significantly; 3) use reserve funds to maintain service levels; 4) engage in community outreach; 5) survey the public regarding district issues; 6) wait beyond 2014 to at least 2015 for assessed property values to increase before asking for a mill levy increase.
Each of these recommendations was followed. Expenditures were cut by about $600,000 in 2014 and 2015 by eliminating three full-time positions. Spending on equipment replacement and building maintenance and improvements was eliminated. The remaining shortfall was satisfied by using approximately $600,000 of reserve funds in each of 2014 and 2015.
A new master plan (MP) for the district was commissioned and completed in 2015. Almont Associates, a highly respected consultant, reviewed the entire operation and financing of the district. As part of the process, Mark Chain and Associates, longtime local planners, conducted numerous public meetings, and a survey was conducted to obtain public input. The district’s website (http://www.carbondalefire.org) was updated to provide more information.
The MP is a detailed document that analyzes the needs of the district in great depth. It has been available to the public on the district’s website since August. Paper copies are also available at district headquarters. If members of the public simply want an overview, they may read the executive summary at the beginning of the plan. The public has had a month and a half to review the MP and still has another month and a half to do so before the election.
The district board has been reviewing drafts of the plan since early July. The board met with the master planners on two occasions to review the plan before it was finalized and approved. Mr. Harvey complains that he spent four hours reading the MP and only got halfway through. What he doesn’t tell you is the overriding conclusion of Almont and Chain is that the district is doing a good job of maintaining proper service levels despite severe economic challenges, but cannot continue to do so without increased revenue.
Almont said the district has “done yeoman’s work navigating the department through very difficult economic times.” Almont also stated that “the continued deficit spending pattern in which the department finds itself cannot continue without dire consequences in the near future. Historically, the district’s leadership has made severe cuts to curtail spending. Further cuts will reduce the abilities of the department and negatively impact the delivery of service.”
November’s mill levy increase request is a stop-gap measure. It won’t get the district back to the revenue level of 2013, even coupled with the expected $371,000 additional revenue in 2016 due to increased property values. The increase, if approved, will generate just under $600,000. Thus, the approximately $371,000 property value increase and $600,000 mil levy increase still leave the district more than $200,000 short of 2013 revenues. However, this additional revenue will allow the district to stop using reserves, hire people over time to replace the three eliminated positions, begin funding needed equipment replacement and training, and continue the first response team for wildfires.
The proposed increase is 1.75 mills starting in 2016 and continuing in 2017, but not beyond. This two-year sunset will give the district and voters the opportunity to see if property values continue to rise and, if so, the amount of additional tax revenue to be generated as a result. This increase, if approved, will mean a slight increase in property taxes. For a homeowner with a house valued at $500,000, the increase would be $70 a year, or less than $6 per month.
Mr. Harvey argues that voters should reject the mill levy increase because the public has not had a chance to comment on the MP and provide input. The MP contemplates changes to be made over a period of time. The additional revenue will not be available until several months into 2016. Members of the public have already been attending board meetings and discussing the issues and stating opinions related to district needs and spending. There is plenty of time for additional public input before decisions relating to MP recommendations and spending will be made. It is noteworthy that many of the MP recommendations require funding. This can’t happen without a tax increase.
Waiting until 2016 or later to allow a vote deprives the voters of an opportunity to address the district’s current financial needs. Without a yes vote, the district’s financial position will continue to deteriorate. Why wait and make a bad situation worse? Why not be proactive and let the voters decide the district’s future sooner rather than later?
Almont’s representatives were specifically asked if they recommended having an election question for a mill levy increase in 2015 or 2016. They recommended 2015. Both Almont and Chain reviewed different financial scenarios from maintaining the status quo to various mill levy increases. Both consultants favored a larger increase with a longer sunset than the election question now before the voters.
Virtually everyone involved recognizes the need for additional funding. Putting off the election only makes matters worse. It’s not a “rush job.” Rather, the election gives the voters the opportunity to determine the financial future of the district. You can vote “no” for the wrong reason that Mr. Harvey suggests — to “light a fire” under district leaders. Or you can vote “yes” for the right reasons — to allow the district to continue to provide the excellent services that the community needs and expects and to help the district begin to return to financial stability. Please support the district with your vote.
The authors are members of the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District board, though they are writing as individuals.
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