By Bob Ward
Sopris Sun Correspondent
Funding your local fire department is about as American as apple pie, and firefighters rarely have trouble at the ballot box.
But the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District has stirred up some opposition this election season with its request for a $1 million tax increase. Several residents, including a town trustee and a former trustee, have written letters to The Sopris Sun, complaining about the size of the proposed increase, along with its timing and its permanence.
“We Carbondalians may be a bunch of ‘tax and spend liberals,’ but this latest tax increase request is too much, even for us,” wrote John B. Stewart and Nancy Smith of Carbondale.
“I can easily see my fire district tax soaring to $1,000 over the next 10 years,” wrote Denise Barkhurst. “This is an out-of-balance equation for the services offered.”
The district’s 2013 general fund budget is $3.2 million, but district officials expect to collect closer to $2 million in 2014 without the tax increase. According to the TABOR notice mailed to voters in the fire district, the increase proposed by Question 4B would equate to an additional $31 of property taxes per $100,000 of residential property value over last year. The district has 75 volunteers and 20 paid staff members.
The TABOR notice mailed to voters in the fire district includes an argument in support of Question 4B, which claims that various bad things could happen if the measure isn’t passed: “Without this request, the District will experience a decline in revenues resulting in:
• Extended response time for fire and ambulance calls
• Delayed equipment replacement
• Potential reduction of paid staff
• Elimination of community education programs such as CPR classes
• Elimination of initial attack wildfire program
• Increase of ISO rating resulting in an increase in fire insurance premiums.
The last claim about insurance premiums appears to some like a scare tactic. Fire Chief Ron Leach explained in an Oct. 22 phone interview that the private, independent Insurance Services Office (ISO) last evaluated the district’s fire risk in 2012 and usually comes around once every 10 years. Leach expects the ISO to increase the frequency of its future evaluations, but nothing will happen to the district’s rating or homeowners’ insurance premiums in the near term.
“The ISO rating will not go up or down based on one election,” Leach said. “Over time a chronically underfunded fire department would affect property insurance. But nothing will happen next year.”
ISO ratings range from 1 to 10, with 1 being best. The Carbondale district is currently rated five, across the 320 square miles from Marble to Carbondale to Missouri Heights, Leach said. The rating is based solely on the perceived risk of structural fires, he added, and does not involve wildfire risk or anything to do with ambulance service. Some insurance providers use the ISO rating as a risk-assessment tool, but others don’t.
Leach understands the sticker shock that some voters are feeling, but said the district is trying to adjust to a 40 percent drop in property values (and thus property tax revenue) while maintaining the same level of fire protection and emergency medical response.
Two years ago the district asked voters for a two-year mill levy override in reaction to a 28 percent drop in property values, but that two-year period has expired.
“The current ballot question seeks to make permanent the previous two-year override, plus an additional amount,” he said. “We want to fix this funding problem for the long term so we don’t have to come back to the voters every two years depending on what the situation is.”
Leach acknowledged that he might not have done enough public outreach to explain the reasons for the ballot question.
“I think it’s a fair criticism that we haven’t, I haven’t, explained to this community the fiscal part of this fire and ambulance service,” Leach said.
He emphasized, however, that today’s fire protection district is much more than a traditional volunteer fire department. Roughly 65 percent of the calls that come to the district are ambulance calls, he said, and district taxpayers expect professional emergency medical responders as well as fire fighters.
“We maintain a crew of paramedics on call 24-7,” he said. “We want a quick response time on those ambulance calls, we want trained paramedics and we want good, modern equipment. When I say ‘we,’ I mean the community.”
But at least some members of the community want more information from the district before they agree to a property tax hike.
“The board members and managers at Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District owe us a detailed explanation about how our money will be used,” wrote town trustee Allyn Harvey in a recent letter to the editor. “Vote no this year, and let the district come back with a better case next year.”