Guest opinion: No more of the same for Carbondale fire district
I am facing a dilemma with the Carbondale fire board’s proposed tax increase. I absolutely respect and support the excellent work of the professional staff and volunteers of the district. Conversely, I believe the fire board’s financial leadership is amiss. My opinion is reinforced by what I learned during my recent six-month service on the fire district task force and through participation in the master planning process. I also know others on these citizen committees share my opinion.
A common theme expressed by the task force was “no more of the same.” This mantra comes in large part from a solid understanding of fire district finances and a task force goal of securing a sustainable financial future for the district. It was evident during the planning process that a big part of the current financial condition was/is a lack of good financial foresight. There are several examples of financial faux pas, but the purchase of a million-dollar 100-foot ladder truck with a $100,000 annual debt payment is a big one. The tallest building in the district is 35 feet. Other equipment options were available.
In another example, between 2010 and 2013, when other governments were wrestling with the Great Recession, the district used a two-year temporary tax levy increase to build a surplus of $1.2 million. Then the district asked the voters for a tax increase that would have doubled the mill levy permanently, which subsequently failed. Despite losing that election, the fire board made no significant cuts to the 2015 budget and continued to deplete the reserves by approximately $700,000.
The newspapers recently reported that the fire board in its 2016 budget is considering replacing three salaried positions with revenues from the proposed tax increase. Have the board members thought this through carefully in light or their deficit spending and likely continuing deficit spending? This seems like they are aiming to get themselves right back to their historic spending practices. How is this different — or is this more of the same?
Four of five members on the fire board have been on an accelerated path to ask for more taxes, despite the recommendations to the contrary from the 2014 task force and the recent master planning effort.
The board has hardly had time to digest its adopted Master Plan, let alone put in place solid financial strategies. The new Master Plan has not even been presented to the public for input. It strikes me that the board is pursuing the easy solution — more taxes — instead of developing a long-term financial plan.
Fire board member Carl Smith has been the lone voice urging the other members to take the time to develop a sustainable monetary approach. He has been regularly criticized by fellow board members for his view. The newspaper has already reported that board is considering another mill levy increase in two years. This does not strike me as a sustainable solution.
I am willing to consider a levy increase, but only after the fire board presents a fiscally sustainable approach that does not continually rely on the taxpayer to balance the budget. The public should be assured that the hard work of the task force and the citizens who worked on the master plan will be given its due. Dozens of people have put in countless hours and the vast majority recommended the fire board wait a year so it can put together a solid and community-oriented plan for managing our fire district and the people who volunteer and work there. There should be “no more of the same.”
I do not support this tax increase because I do not believe the fire board has in place a sustainable long-term financial plan. I hope others consider this mill levy increase very carefully.
Davis Farrar is a Missouri Heights resident who served on the 2014 Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District Citizens Task Force and participated in the district’s master planning process earlier this year. He is former Carbondale town manager and currently works with a number of Western Slope communities.
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