The Sopris Sun

Fire election heating up

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Contributor

Just when voters in the Carbondale area thought they could relax for a while following the recent municipal election, the ongoing contest for seats on the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District board of directors has been heating up in anticipation of another Election Day, May 6.

Two challenging candidates are charging that the current members of the fire district board have lost touch with the 15,000 or so residents they serve, as shown by the voters’ rejection last year of a proposed property-tax hike, and that new blood is needed to face the district’s fiscal challenges.

The incumbent candidates, however, have maintained that the district has tried to keep the voters informed about its plans and its needs, and will continue to do so if reelected.

“They made a mistake, and I’m offering myself as someone different, someone new,” declared challenger and retired Carbondale fire official Carl Smith on Tuesday, referring to last year’s mill levy defeat.

“I think we’ve done exactly what the voters told us that they wanted us to do,” responded incumbent candidate Mike Kennedy, referring to tax questions posed to voters over the past decade or so that were mostly approved, except for last year’s defeat.

He added that when voters shot down last year’s tax question, over concerns about the size of the hike and its permanence, “We heard that loud and clear.”

The district’s voters are being asked to mail in ballots to fill three open seats on the five-member district board. Ballots are to be mailed out between April 14 and April 21, according to the district’s chief election official, and the votes will be tallied on May 6.

Long-time fire board incumbents Gene Schilling, Mark Chain and Mike Kennedy are being challenged by two former employees of the district, Carl Smith and Gary McElwee, for the job of running the 320-square-mile district that covers the Crystal River Valley, Marble, Redstone, Carbondale, parts of Missouri Heights and west to the Colorado Mountain College turnoff on Highway 82.

And just as it was for two previous fire-district elections, in 2011 and in 2013, a key issue is whether the district is justified in asking for a tax increase to sustain spending at a level of approximately $3.2 million per year.

Voters last year firmly rejected a mill-levy increase that proponents maintained would have kept the district’s revenues and spending at roughly the $3.2 million level, which the district indicated was needed to maintain fire fighting and ambulance/emergency medical services as they have been in recent years.

One significant reason for the voter rejection, as acknowledged by district officials and critics alike, was the fact that a previous tax hike approved by voters in 2011 for two years, as well as the hike requested in 2013, would have been made permanent under the 2013 ballot language. The 2011 tax hike had a two-year “sunset clause,” meaning it expired last year, but the 2013 ballot language contained no such clause.

The rejection of the tax hike, according to statements from Fire Chief Ron Leach and board president Schilling last December, has meant the district’s tax revenues would drop to $2 million this year. That $1.2 million shortfall, officials said, has been dealt with by cutting $500,000 in spending and dipping into the district’s reserve funds to the tune of $700,000.

District officials pledged, following the electoral defeat, that they would do a better job of reaching out to voters and educate the public on the district’s fiscal needs.

Both Smith and McElwee, however, maintain the district has made only “cosmetic” budgetary cuts in the past year, and McElwee wrote in a statement to The Sopris Sun, “I believe that more needs to be done by them than just to ‘educate’ the voters. I believe the current board of directors has lost the public’s trust and new people are going to have to step up to effect any change.”

The 2013 tax hike proposal, Smith said in an interview, was “excessive, and didn’t have a time limit on it,” which prompted voters to turn it down, and Smith argued that the voters felt they had not been adequately informed about the fire district’s budgets, salaries, equipment purchases and other matters.

Smith and McElwee each told The Sopris Sun that, despite promises for more transparency and better communication with the voters in the wake of last year’s rejection of the tax hike, the district has not lived up to those promises.

District officials see the matter differently, however.

Each of the three incumbents told The Sopris Sun that they feel the district has reacted to the voters’ message by setting up a community task force that will meet monthly until July (the next meeting is April 21 at the Carbondale Fire House) and Leach told The Sopris Sun on Wednesday that the district has eliminated three positions (one emergency management coordinator, one firefighter/paramedic and one firefighter/EMT-I).

He said the district also has eliminated eight part-time positions formerly dedicated to summertime first-response teams that roamed the district to detect possible wildfires early and get them out before they began to grow and intensify.

The total annual savings from those personnel and program cuts, including salaries and benefits, comes to more than $340,000, Leach reported, in addition to other program cuts that brought the total to approximately $500,000.

“That is not just cosmetic,” Leach declared, in response to the claims made by Smith and McElwee, noting that for 2014 the district budgeted $1.9 million in personnel costs, out of a total budget of $2.5 million.

All five of the candidates for the three open board seats are long-time area residents who have been active in the community in many ways.

The incumbents all have been residents of the Carbondale area for decades. Schilling is the chief of the Carbondale Police Department, Kennedy is a real estate broker and community activist whose projects have included membership on the board of the Carbondale Wild West Rodeo, and Chain has worked as a government planner and a planning consultant in addition to his service on the fire board.

According to interviews with and statements to the Sun, McElwee has lived for 22 years in the Carbondale area, has a decade of experience with the Carbondale fire district, and 30 years’ experience in emergency medical services.

Smith told the Sun he has worked for 43 years with different fire departments around Colorado, including 23 years with the Aurora Fire Department, 10 years with the Glenwood Springs department and 11 years with the Carbondale district, six of them as deputy chief of operations. He retired in 2010, though he still volunteers, and has done stints on regional and statewide emergency medical and trauma advisory committees, task forces and planning bodies.

The Sopris Sun will continue to publish articles about the fire district board race in the coming weeks.