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Fire board votes for tax hike ballot question

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By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

The elected leaders of the Carbondale fire department voted on Aug. 19, 4-1, to move ahead with a ballot question this November, asking for a tax hike that would bring in roughly $600,000 more in annual property tax revenues than are now coming into the department’s coffers.

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The ballot question also would come with a two-year “sunset clause.”

That means that a tax hike of 1.75 mills, which would boost the tax rate to 7.653, would be limited to two years in duration, after which the tax rate would drop back to its existing level.

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If the district still needed additional revenues, it would need to go back to the voters, perhaps as early as 2018, to seek another tax hike.

The sole dissenting vote on the tax question came from Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District (CRFPD) board member Carl Smith, a former fire fighter and paid staffer at the CRFPD who won election to the board in 2014 largely based on his public skepticism about the board’s handling of its fiscal affairs.

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At the end of the Aug. 19 meeting, after the vote was taken, Smith was grilled about his ongoing criticism of what he has termed the fire board’s lack of transparency and sound financial planning.

“I wonder if you’re going to actively, uh, go against the men and women on the fire department, to advance whatever cause you’re advancing,” said district resident and volunteer fire-fighter Mark Luttrell, who spoke out in favor of a tax hike at the meeting and criticized Smith for his dissenting viewpoint, according to a recording of the meeting.

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“Are you saying,” asked district resident,  Tom Adgate “that you don’t believe the men and women of the fire fighters need more money?”

Smith, whose voice seemed to reflect anger at the questions, shot back, “I’ve crawled on my belly, in fires, with these people. I will never be against them. I resent that (accusation).”

His concern, he said is that the board does not have a well-crafted plan to present to voters, who in 2013 rejected a tax-hike proposal from the board based largely on a lack of planning and on a lack of a “sunset clause” limiting the tax increase to a certain length of time before it expires.

But, he said later, he will continue to voice his opinion, stating that it is his right to do so under state and federal law and is part of his obligation to the voters who elected him to the fire board.

He said he agrees with the proposed 2016 budget submitted by Fire Chief Ron Leach, which calls for raises for paid personnel next year.

“I’m very supportive of paying them the salaries they need,” Smith said.

But he added that he continues to doubt whether the district has adequately analyzed the findings and recommendations of consultants who recently produced a master plan for the district’s operations, and whether the district is on firm ground in its goal of seeking a tax hike this year.

“There’s money in the till,” Smith declared. “We can go another year” [without a tax hike]. He cited calculations supplied by Almont Associates, one of the consultants who worked on the master plan, to bolster this view.

Smith also expressed unease at what he viewed as a generalized feeling among the board members that all decisions should be unanimously supported by all members of the board.

“There seems to be some great belief that we need to be unanimous,” Smith said. “We don’t have to be unanimous. If we wanted to be unanimous, then we don’t need a board of five. We need a board of one.”

Board member Mike Kennedy said he agreed with many of Smith’s arguments and points, adding that it was Smith’s thinking that convinced Kennedy that a two-year sunset clause would be a good idea.

But, he continued, “I would say that once the board makes a decision, all members of that board own that decision. Whatever the vote is … whatever the motion is that’s carried … needs to be followed and pursued by all five members of the board, and I would hope that you (Smith) would help carry this forward and put a positive spin on it.”

Smith, however, disagreed with Kennedy’s analysis of the situation, and said heatedly, “I’m not subversive (of the district’s efforts).”

Concerning the election, Smith said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do” as far as his role in talking with citizens about the underlying issues.

The exact language of the ballot question was to be worked out at a meeting on Aug. 26, too late for this edition of The Sopris Sun.

But at the Aug. 19 meeting it was generally accepted that the voters will be asked to increase the department’s mill levy by approximately 1.75 mills, on top of the current tax rate of 5.903 mills.

A “mill” equals $1 in taxation for every $1,000 in the assessed valuation of real property. A tax increase of 1.75 mills would add roughly $88 to the annual property tax bill of a home or other property valued by the Garfield County Assessor at $500,000, according to a calculation offered at the Aug. 19 meeting by board member Bob Emerson.

According to the motion to approve the tax hike question, which was made by board member Lou Eller, the money would be used to hire additional paid personnel and to maintain the department’s fire and emergency services at their existing levels.

The current tax-hike discussion traces back to the 2013 ballot question, when the district sought a roughly six-mill tax increase to overcome a 40 percent loss in property tax revenues as a consequence of the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

The 2013 request would have essentially doubled the revenues taken in by the district, but did not come with a sunset clause. That lack of a sunset clause was largely seen as the main reason voters turned the district down.

During the Aug. 19 discussion by the fire board, it was noted that the consultants who drew up the new master plan for district operations estimated that the district might need that much of a revenue boost — perhaps up to six mills-worth of additional tax income — to make up for personnel cutbacks, deferred maintenance and replacement of fire district equipment and other needs.

But after lengthy debate the directors agreed that the increase as proposed — roughly 1.75 mills — would be sufficient to keep the district running at existing service levels for two years.

“It’s enough to get us back on track for a couple of years, it’s small enough that I think the voters will go for it,” Kennedy said, adding that it will provide time for the district to begin implementing recommendations from the consultants and determining what its future fiscal needs will be.

Published in The Sopris Sun on August 27, 2015.

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