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Fire district tight-lipped on master plan proposals

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Board discusses proposals Jan. 28

By John Colson

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Sopris Sun Correspondent

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The leaders of the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District will meet on Jan. 28, in a public session, to decide which of four firms should be hired to write up the district’s 2015 master plan, which is intended to guide the district’s operations for the coming decade.

The meeting will feature on-site interviews with three of the four firms that submitted proposals in response to the district’s Nov. 26, 2014 request for proposals and bids. A fourth firm will be interviewed by telephone.

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In interviews with The Sopris Sun leading up to the Jan. 28 meeting, however, district officials have declined to reveal how much the four firms are estimating their work will cost. Officials have stated that the district has an obligation to protect any “proprietary information” contained in the bids, including the bottom-line, estimated overall price tag for the work.

The district has budgeted up to $90,000 in funds for the master planning process, according to fire board members.

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Generally, the request for proposals (RFP) lays out a list of requirements for the bidding firms to follow, such as being “capable of working closely with the board of directors, staff and the Carbondale community” and being ready to offer “a strong public outreach and public involvement component” as part of the process.

Other requirements are to provide “a strong fiscal planning component,” as the district has struggled with financial problems for the past few years due to a slump in property-tax revenues blamed on the recent Great Recession that began in 2008.

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The four candidate firms are:

• Mark Chain and Associates, headed by a former fire board member and long time planning consultant in the Roaring Fork Valley, Mark Chain of Carbondale;

• Jviation, a Denver-based firm that employs one-time Carbondale fire department volunteer Hilary Fletcher, and which focuses primarily on aviation-related master planning work but also works in such areas as roads and highways, bridges, civic and municipal development and water/wastewater planning, according to information available on the Internet;

• Almont Associates, a Florida firm that originated more than 20 years ago in the unincorporated town of Almont, Colorado, in Gunnison County. The firm reportedly still maintains an office there, and its focus is on fire, police and other emergency-services planning and public safety issues, according to its website;

• Fitch & Associates, a Missouri-based company that boasts of nearly 30 years of experience in planning for fire and emergency medical services districts.

The master plan is an outgrowth of a 2013 tax hike election, in which voters rejected the district’s request for additional tax revenues to overcome losses of revenues due to the recent national recession.

Among the reasons cited by voters, in what was widely viewed as a “no-confidence” vote on the district’s tax-hike justification and its policy priorities, was a disinclination to go along with an open-ended tax that could be levied in perpetuity, and an interest in greater transparency concerning how the district spends public funds and does its job.

Following the defeat of the tax hike, the district put together a Citizen Advisory Committee that met between March and August of 2014 and, among other recommendations, urged the fire board to update its 2004 master plan before returning to voters with any future tax-hike requests.

The fire board complied, sending out the RFPs and receiving a total of six proposals in response by late December. In the ensuing weeks, fire board members and fire district staff have narrowed the field down to the four finalists listed above.

The proposals from the four applicants range from 17 to 58 pages.

Suggestion rejected

At least one member of the fire board, newly elected member Carl Smith, suggested the firms’ proposals be uploaded onto the fire district’s website (www.carbondalefire.org), but his suggestion was rejected by other board members. The district’s staff attorney, Eric Gross, researched the question and said he found statutes that back up the district’s decision to keep the information confidential as a matter of protecting “proprietary information” submitted as part of the proposal.

At a meeting on Jan. 20 with The Sopris Sun, members of the district’s master plan proposals review committee, chaired by fire board member Mike Kennedy, declined to release the bottom-line dollar amounts associated with the different proposals.

The committee members cited a concern that publicizing the bid amounts would violate the firms’ interest in confidentiality. The RFP document, however, does not mention confidentiality as a consideration in the bid process, though Fire Chief Ron Leach stated that two of the firms he contacted by phone said they wanted their “proprietary information” to remain confidential.

Plus, according to Kennedy, one of the proposals was submitted without a precise price tag attached, although it did lay out the firm’s hourly rates and estimated time commitment for doing such work.

An added rationale for withholding the price tags that were submitted, according to the fire district’s attorney, is “because the process hasn’t been completed.”

He and others at the review committee meeting also declined to say whether the board, after a firm is selected, will make public the bid amounts submitted by whichever firms are not selected.

The continuing disinclination to post the master plan proposals on the website troubled Smith who, though he went along with the attorney’s finding that the proposals should remain confidential, still believes the district would be better served to let the public see the documents.

This is especially true, Smith told The Sopris Sun on Tuesday, given the fact that the Jan. 28 meeting will be a public one, and the dollar amounts attached to the bids are likely to be revealed at that point anyway.

The $90,000 earmarked for the master plan, Smith said, is “a major expense” for the district that warrants greater public airing.

Plus, he said, since the district received the firms’ proposals, “I’ve gotten half a dozen people ask me to have it posted so they could see it.”

That, he maintained, is an example of “citizen involvement, which is what this (the master planning process) is all about.”

Surprised

The decision to keep the proposals confidential also surprised another local government official, Carbondale Town Manager Jay Harrington.

After checking over previous RFPs sent out by the Town of Carbondale for different projects, Harrington noted that they, like the fire district’s RFP, contained no reference to confidentiality guarantees for the bidding companies.

“I would have taken that to mean it should be considered a public document,” Harrington said.

When a firm is selected by the fire board, according to a “Scope of Work” document describing the project’s goals, “A schedule of fees will be negotiated with the selected consultant for the services to be performed. It is the intent of the district to enter into a contract with the firm most qualified to perform the planning services.”

The board meeting on Jan. 28 will be held at the Carbondale Fire Station on Meadowood Drive and is expected to take up to four hours in the afternoon. The public is invited to attend.

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