Board members also blast The Sun
By John Colson
Sopris Sun Correspondent
The elected leaders of the Carbondale fire district, at a meeting on Feb. 11, laid out a framework for updating the district’s decade-old master plan, including how to engage the public in coming up with ideas for rescuing the district from its ongoing financial difficulties.
The district recently hired two consulting firms — Mark Chain Consulting LLC of Carbondale and the Almont Associates firm of Port Orange, Fla. — to divide between them the chores linked with the master planning effort, at a total cost of nearly $87,000.
The two firms are splitting the contract for the master planning effort, with just over $53,000 going to the Chain group and nearly $34,000 to the Almont firm.
The master plan project 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 effects of the recent national recession.
District officials have warned taxpayers that the district is facing serious fiscal problems and must find ways to boost its revenues or be faced with cutting the quantity and quality of services provided to district residents.
At present, district officials have linked the master plan to prospects for putting to voters another tax-hike question of some sort.
At the Feb. 11 board meeting, consultant Mark Chain and his subcontractor, Leslie Lamont of Lamont Planning Services, also of Carbondale, stuck with their recommendation for a nine-member “steering committee,” to be made up of two members of the fire board and seven others appointed from the district at large, to aid the consultants in gathering public input about the district and its needs.
The Chain group’s portion of the planning process is to be largely a matter of “leading the public involvement process, which entails community surveys, community outreach, and website and communication services, along with the financial feasibility process portion of the Master Plan,” according to a statement issued by the district when the consultants were selected.
The steering committee is important, Lamont told the board, because it provides a method for sifting through issues and problems without the need for the board itself to meet every time an issue arises.
Plus, she said, “The committee is also your ambassadors to the community,” providing a conduit for information to the public without the board’s direct involvement.
District board member Carl Smith at one point asked whether a schedule of monthly meetings, as proposed by Chain, would be enough to work through the complexities represented by a master planning process. Smith suggested the committee might need to meet every two weeks, or perhaps weekly, to get the job done in the six months allocated to the process.
“That’s a lot to ask,” Lamont countered, suggesting that additional meetings could be called for if the monthly-meeting schedule proved inadequate.
Chain added that scheduling too many meetings might discourage public involvement, as the committee will be made up mostly of volunteers who very likely will have other obligations in addition to their service to the district.
“However we’re going to manage them (the meetings),” Kennedy said, “let’s not make it a cumbersome process, because we’ve got to get this thing going.”
Fire district officials have said publicly that the district needs more revenues if it is to maintain services at the level achieved in recent, more cash-flush years, in particular if the district hopes to continue to offer 24-7 coverage by certified emergency medical technicians or EMTs.
That portion of the district’s services, fire officials have said, consumes the lion’s share of the district’s annual budgets.
Budget for 2016
The Feb. 11 meeting covered a broad range of topics, including Fire Chief Ron Leach’s report on his plan to start working on a budget for 2016 as a backdrop to the master planning process and future debates over whether the district should again seek a tax hike from its constituents.
When asked to estimate the district’s tax valuation prospects for the coming years, Leach told the board, “the numbers seem to go all over the map, from five percent to 30 percent.”
He said that real estate professionals he has talked to have pegged property valuation increases at “about 15 percent.”
Looking at it conservatively, Leach noted that the district expects to collect a total of about $1.5 million in tax proceeds for last year, and that a cautious estimate might be an increase of 10 percent, or roughly $150,000 for next year.
“Ten percent will not right this financial problem that we have,” he told the board, adding that tax-valuation figures from the county assessor’s office will not be available until next August.
The board also had somewhat heated discussion about the district’s relatively new policy restricting public comments about district business to board president Gene Schilling or, if Schilling is unable to do it, to Kennedy.
Schilling, stressing that “this is my opinion,” conceded that board members, as elected officials, have the right to speak to news reporters about district business.
But, he continued, “it seems like whenever there’s something that people (dissenting board members) don’t like, it goes into the press.”
Schilling was highly critical of The Sopris Sun, which he accused of trying to “control” how the district is run by publishing what Schilling felt were critical or negative stories about district decisions and policies.
Singling out Smith, who was elected in 2014 and has been critical of certain board actions before the election and since, Schilling charged that the media is “ … try to use their influence, and I think they suck you into it.”
Smith responded that there have been fewer than six “non-unanimous” votes on the board since he was voted onto the board, and that he supported the idea that Schilling and Kennedy should be the official spokespersons for the district.
But, Smith added, “There’s always going to be something we’re not agreeing on,” and he would continue to speak out concerning board matters when he feels it is warranted.
Kennedy, concurring with Schilling’s views, said he understands that elected board members have the right and obligation to talk to news reporters.
But, he said, board members should exercise caution to avoid starting “a pissing contest … in the newspapers” among board members who have differing views.
Agreeing with Schilling that the papers are guilty of “picking and choosing” what to publish, he noted that the paper at one point ran stories based on e-mails among board members, and declared, “I think that’s bull crap.”
He later opined, “I don’t think Lynn Burton (editor of The Sopris Sun) needs to be privy to everything everybody discusses on this board.”
Kennedy later clarified, by telephone to this reporter, that e-mails between board members do not always reflect what is said at board meetings, which are open to the public.
“I think The Sopris Sun should get their information from the public meetings,” he told The Sopris Sun on Wednesday.
At the Feb. 11 board meeting, Kennedy also brought up a controversial ladder truck the district bought three years ago, and maintained an article The Sun published about the purchase did not accurately explain the financial arrangements surrounding the deal. “We saved the taxpayers thousands of dollars,” Kennedy said. “That (the financing) was a smart business decision on our part … .”
After some more criticism of The Sun’s coverage of the district, Kennedy made a motion to sell the ladder truck “ … if that’s what everybody wants to do. …” and also the district’s command trailer, which Smith had questioned the need for last year. Both motions died for the lack of a second.
In other fire board business:
• The Carbondale Fire Board will hold a special meeting at noon on Feb. 25. Agenda items include: consideration of approval of master plan consultant contracts; and discussion of a mediation consultant.