(Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part Q&A article on the state of Carbondale. It leads off with questions for the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District).
By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Correspondent
SUN: The Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District is holding a board election this year. What will that look like?
RON LEACH (fire chief): “It’s a five-person board, with three up for reelection to four year terms: Mike Kennedy, Gene Schilling and Mark Chain.”
SUN: Are any of them term limited?
LEACH: “We had a special election for an exemption (several) years back, so there are no term limits.”
SUN: Will there be another fire district mill levy question on the ballot in November?
LEACH: “Yes. We feel strongly that we don’t overspend out here. We really need this next election, or the community’s fire department is going to be devastated.”
SUN: What might the fire district do to have a positive outcome the next time around?
MIKE KENNEDY (fire district board member): “The biggest thing we heard from the voters was the need for a sunset. Typically, we’re well supported by the community and the taxpayers. People are tired of taxes. With the economy in the last five years, we understand that they’re hurting. Maybe it wasn’t as well explained as it needed to be. We need to educate the community as to who we are and what we do. We provide the ambulance service, swift-water rescue, and we’re the first responders in backcountry rescue. We made the miscalculation that people just knew that.”
SUN: How will the ballot question loss in November affect operations this year?
LEACH: “We’re in survival mode. We lost 40 percent of our funding. All improvements have been put on hold. We take the wildfire problem very seriously here. We try to staff up in the summer time, and this year we won’t be able to. There’s more to it than just taxes. We see the consequences of inadequate funding. (The years) 2012 and 2013 were the worst two wildfire years in Colorado history. There’s been thousands of acres and hundreds of homes burned. The more people move into the forest, the more houses and lives are at risk.”
SUN: So we’re probably not looking at a Fourth of July fireworks show this year?
LEACH: “No, I think that’s a thing of the past. There are alternatives being talked about. You can get laser shows, but everything costs money. Right now, there are no definite plans for a replacement.”
SUN: Do you have any other options for combating the shortfall?
KENNEDY: “Grants will buy you things, but they won’t pay the paramedics, and they usually require you to match the money. We probably won’t be applying for any (grants) with the way things are now.”
SUN: Anything else you can do to combat wildfire with reduced personnel?
KENNEDY: “The last couple years we’ve run IA (Initial Attack) teams. If there’s lightning expected up Missouri Heights, they’re up there raising public awareness, and they’re close by if there’s a fire. They’ve had some legitimate saves.”
LEACH: “Our tactic is to jump on these fires when they’re small. Most people never know about all the fires we put out before they become a major problem.”
SUN: How do you think last year’s public transit projects will affect the town?
BERNOT: “Parking is an issue and RFTA’s looking at it, but it’s not just Carbondale’s park-n-ride, it’s pretty much all of ‘em. Even though we’ve had some bumps, the majority of people I’ve talked to when I’ve ridden it are really stoked on BRT.”
JAY HARRINGTON (town manager): “We’re trying to get them (RFTA) to explore the possibility of getting some smaller busses for the circulator loop, which would allow at least a modest expansion.”
SUN: Are you discouraged or optimistic about the Surls Museum’s withdrawal?
HARVEY: “I’m sorry that it went this way, it seems like a lost year, but I hope the Surls Museum still finds a place in town.”
BERNOT: “I think in true Carbondale spirit, even since it pulled out, there’s been quite a bit of interest. I’m pretty excited to see what thing reemerge and others that we didn’t think about, or it wasn’t their time. But I see it as a really neat opportunity.”
HARRINGTON: “You know, the library moved in July and we didn’t take possession until late September. I’d like to get it occupied, but it hasn’t been vacant that long, either. On thing that hasn’t changed is that the town doesn’t have significant resources to invest in the building for major remodels or anything like that.”
SUN: Do you feel any sense of economic competition between Carbondale and its neighbors?
GENE SCHILLING (police chief): “We lost three employees to Basalt. And their pay was significantly more than what we can offer them here. And so the trustees authorized the town to go ahead with a salary survey.”
HARVEY: “They (Basalt) are developing very differently (from Carbondale). Basalt has some fairly aggressive development. Carbondale over the last 11 years has twice rejected a similar type of project, so I don’t know that there’s a competition. I think the community visions are a difference. You hear, ‘Carbondale’s broken,’ but I don’t think the community thinks that. I think the community thinks we have a great little town and a good place to live. Willits has been a huge diversion of commercial energy. I think downtown Basalt’s feeling it harder than Carbondale but we’re feeling it, too. Certainly on a grocery end. I know City Market is down.”
SUN: The Thompson Divide issue has sort of gone underground this winter. Any developments there?
HARRINGTON: “I’ve found it to be kind of a unifying issue in town, where folks that are usually on conflicting sides agree. In terms of recent developments, SG Interests just put in a request to extend a little further. We’re going to be briefed on that on Feb. 11. It will most likely be all or partially in executive session.”
ALLYN HARVEY (town trustee): “This could be a very important year (for Thompson Divide) or another year we’re in limbo. A lot of that is out of the hands of the community and in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management.”
SUN: Anything you’re expecting to focus on in 2014?
SCHILLING: “One of our big pushes is going to be getting bicyclists to follow the rules of the road.”
SUN: Have you noticed any crime trends?
SCHILLING: “A lot of things go up and down. It seems like we’ll have a bunch of something, and then something happens. We catch ‘em. When we had that drug bust our car and house break-ins went to nothing. So it was down for a bit and now in the last few months it’s been back up again. A lot of things are like that.”