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Fire district continues work on finances, other issues

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Task force closing in on recommendations

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Correspondent

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The Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District may not be asking voters for a tax hike in November, based on an informal polling of members of a special citizens advisory task force at its monthly meeting on Monday.

Fire district voters rejected the district’s plea for a tax increase last year, largely due to a public perception that the omission of a “sunset clause” on the tax increase could result in a windfall of unneeded cash for the district, and unnecessarily high tax bills for district residents.

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The 2013 tax question came on the heels of voter approval in 2011 of a mill levy override intended to generate some $775,000 in annual income. Voters in 2013 questioned the justification for an open-ended tax hike on top of the one granted two years earlier.

The 2011 mill-levy increase had a two-year sunset clause, meaning the district mill levy was set to revert from 8.0 mills back to 5.903 mills at the end of last year unless voters extend it.

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According to district officials, property values in the district dropped by 40 percent in recent years as a consequence of the national and regional recession, leaving the district roughly $1.2 million short in property tax revenues, which make up the bulk of the district’s income.

The fire district’s budget had to be slashed by $500,000 for 2014, and $700,000 was dredged from the district’s reserves to make up for the shortfall.

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The advisory task force was created by the district’s board of directors earlier this year in an attempt to come to grips with community concerns, and to find ways to meet the district’s fiscal needs as it tries to provide high quality services in spite of lowered revenues.

The sprawling, 320-square-mile district extends from McClure Pass in the south to the Spring Valley area in the north, and from the Garfield-Eagle County line in the east to the Thompson Creek/Coal Basin region in the west.

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The task force indicated informally on Monday, in a “straw poll” of task force members, it is not planning to ask for a tax hike in the Nov. 4 general election (see related story).

The task force has for the past several months been going over the district’s finances and its general mission, in an effort to determine the best way to meet the district’s fire protection and emergency medical transport needs.

The work of the task force is expected to culminate in July or August with a final meeting and the issuance of recommendations to the board of directors.

Dilemma’s roots

The fire district’s dilemma has roots that go back for a little more than a decade, starting in 2003 when the district was faced with what district officials now say was a growing demand for better service, which included better emergency medical transport capabilities.

At the time, the district was reliant primarily on Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) to staff its ambulances. EMTs possess a level of skills that is lower than those of paramedics. In 2004, the public approved a $6.7 million bond issue calculated to provide the money to beef up the district’s equipment, facilities and training.

The 2004 Master Plan noted that the district at that time was plagued by aging facilities and equipment, inadequate facilities for housing and training its force of volunteer fire fighters, and a need for “additional full-time paid Paramedic/Firefighters” to meet the taxpayers’ demands, among other issues.

The goals listed in that 2004 Master Plan included a desire to “achieve Paramedic-level ambulance service” and to improve the district’s ISO rating, which rates the district’s ability to respond to emergency service calls as it relates to insurance costs for district taxpayers.

Over the course of the ensuing decade, the district’s annual budget has grown from approximately $1.4 million in 2004, to an estimated peak of $2.8 million in 2013, which is the year that the district went to the taxpayers for more money.

While the district started work on a new master plan in 2011, according to district board vice president Mike Kennedy, uncertainty over the district’s budget in the midst of the recession derailed the master planning.

“Frankly, with the economy getting where it was, and nobody really knew where we were going, we decided to hold off,” Kennedy said.

Over the 10-year period starting in 2004, the district built new fire stations, ramped up its paramedic-level ambulance crew to its current complement of four, improved its radio communications capabilities, and in general raised the bar on its level of service in both towns and throughout the predominantly rural district.

But the rise in paramedic-level employees was the main driver of the budgetary increases, according to long-time Fire Chief Ron Leach.

“The whole thing is about the ambulance service,” Leach said in an interview after the 2013 electoral defeat, explaining that the ambulance service comprises the biggest portion of the budget.

Currently

Deputy Chief Rob Goodwin told The Sopris Sun on Tuesday that there currently are 18 paid employees of the district, all of whom are rated for emergency services work.

For example, the department’s four Emergency Medical Technician-Paramedic employees include Leach himself and two of the district’s shift supervisors. Goodwin is an intermediate-level EMT (one step below a paramedic), and the district’s financial manager and director of human resources, Jenny Cutright, is a basic-level EMT.

A list of the district’s paid personnel, provided by Leach in April, indicated that all the paid employees, including supervisors, maintenance personnel and office staff, are EMTs at one level or another, according to Goodwin.

That means the department’s overall wages of $1.2 million, under the 2014 budget estimate, could be considered all together as emergency medical service wages, making up nearly half of the department’s overall 2014 budget of slightly more than $2.5 million.

The critical nature of the department’s emergency medical work came up at the fire district board’s June 11 meeting, as the board was discussing budgetary matters.

Kennedy, contacted Tuesday by phone, confirmed that he raised the issue of emergency services, including the department’s search and rescue function, saying it is not fully understood by the public.

He cited the weekend of May 31-June 2, during which the district was engaged in multiple emergency medical and rescue operations, many of them coming at the same time.

“That weekend, we had the river rescue in Marble, the mountain rescue at Iron Bridge and more than 20 other calls over a span of about 2.5 days or so,” Kennedy wrote in an e-mail.

“That really stretches the resources and the available people,” he continued, “especially the volunteers. When everyone is out on a call and you get another, then an hour later another … it starts to become tough.”

At the June 11 board meeting, Kennedy concluded, “The public needs to know that.”

Goodwin said that currently, some 60 percent of the district’s calls for emergency services are medical in nature.

Goodwin said he did not know “off the top of my head” exactly what percentage of the district’s budget, including everything from salaries to equipment and training, is devoted to emergency medical services.

But members of the task force have called for that information, he said, and he will be reporting on that at the next task force meeting in July.

“I know it’s a big driver of what we do, probably the biggest,” he observed.

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