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Fire district explains what happened with plan

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John Colson

Sopris Sun Correspondent

As Carbondale voters prepare to cast ballots in the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District board election later this month, one issue that has remained of concern for some voters since late in 2013 is the lack of a current fire district master plan for operations and expenditures.

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The election is being conducted by mail, with ballots to be sent out between April 14 and 21, and to be counted on Election Day, May 6.

The ongoing election pits three incumbent members of the district’s board of directors — board chair Gene Schilling and directors Mike Kennedy and Mark Chain — against two challengers, former district employee and current volunteer Carl Smith, and former volunteer Gary McElwee.

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The challengers have argued that the current board has lost touch with the roughly 15,000 residents of the 320-square mile district.

As if to confirm that charge, the district’s voters last year rejected a proposed tax hike that would have put the district’s revenues at more than $3 million, by canceling out revenue losses due to the 2008 recession and the accompanying plunge in property values that slashed property tax proceeds.

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The incumbents, on the other hand, have said they are responding to the wishes of those same voters and have embarked on a planning process that ultimately could yield a new master plan for the district and other recommendations from a special task force committee created earlier this year.

The district encompasses the Crystal River Valley and the communities of Carbondale, Redstone, Marble and portions of Missouri Heights, as well as the area around the intersection of Colorado Highway 82 and Garfield County Road 114, known as the CMC Road.

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District Fire Chief Ron Leach, along with Schilling and Kennedy, said during an interview on Tuesday that it is likely that the district will produce a new master plan to replace one crafted in 2004.

That 10-year-old master plan, Leach said, is due to expire this year, and it predicted with some accuracy that by 2014 the district would have more than doubled its budget over the 10 years of the plan.

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The district’s budget had grown from approximately $1.1 million in revenues and $1.4 million in expenses in 2004 (prior to a tax hike and bond issue approved by the voters that year) to approximately $3.3 million in revenues and $2.8 million in expenses estimated for 2013.

As the budget has expanded, according to a graph provided by Kennedy, the district’s calls for service have risen from 972 in 2004 to 1,250 in 2013. Thanks to the 2004 tax hike and bond issue, the district has ramped up its emergency medical service level from basic Emergency Medical Technicians in a district-operated ambulance, to full paramedic-level personnel, and built a new fire station/training facility next to the old Station No. 1 fire house.

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Costly paramedics

It is the paramedic-level service, district officials have said, that has been the costliest change in the district’s expenses over the years, a change that district official say was demanded by the voters. The district now boasts paramedic-level ambulance crews on duty and ready to respond to alarms, 24 hours a day.

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“This is all about the ambulance service,” Leach said of the questions about the district’s budget growth that have been raised by some voters and board candidates.

Following the voters’ rejection of last year’s proposed tax hike, the district’s revenues have fallen to an estimated $1.9 million in revenues and an estimated $2.5 million in expenses for 2014. The district cut about $500,000 in expenses and dipped into its reserves to the tune of $700,000 in order to maintain the level of services that existed in 2013.

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Kennedy told The Sopris Sun on Tuesday that the district had begun discussing revision of the old master plan about two years ago, but had suspended the effort.

“Frankly, with the economy where it was, and nobody really knowing where we were going in terms of revenues, we decided to hold off,” Kennedy explained. “We decided, rather than plan into the future with unknown revenues, to concentrate on maintaining the level of services that we had.”

And following the electoral defeat last year, which grew out of voter unhappiness over the permanent nature of the tax hike as well as the lack of a master plan, Kennedy said the board of directors felt that “the committee was a better idea” than embarking on a master planning effort that Leach estimated would have cost tens of thousands of dollars that the board felt it did not have for that purpose.

Any master plan update, said Leach and Kennedy, will depend on a recommendation from the task force.

Leach currently is working on a comparative analysis detailing wages and benefits paid to Carbondale fire district employees, as compared to the wages and salaries paid to employees of other nearby districts. He expects that analysis to be completed by about June, in time for a meeting of the task force committee scheduled to discuss the issues surrounding the district’s personnel costs.

According to a list provided by Leach, the district currently is budgeted to pay more than $1.2 million in salaries for 18 paid employees this year, including the chief’s annual wage of nearly $115,000, a salary of more than $90,000 for the district’s fire marshal, two paramedics earning between $55,000 and $60,000, and four emergency medical technicians earning between about $50,000 (EMT-B, or basic level), which is the lowest salary in the district, and $69,900 for an EMT-I or intermediate level.

Other salaries go up to approximately $87,500 for an operations chief; a training coordinator and a maintenance director paid in the $82,000 range; and a financial manager/human resources director paid $75,000.

According to a salary-range list provided by Pete Bradshaw, deputy chief for the Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District, Basalt pays its chief between, $102,000 and $127,500. The Fire Marshal in Basalt is paid between $78,500 and $98,175, while a firefighter/paramedic earns between $57,300 and $71,700, as a comparison with the salaries paid in the Carbondale Fire District.