The Sopris Sun

Carbondale fire board OKs tax hike ballot question

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

The Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District board of directors last week formally approved a ballot question seeking a tax hike from district property owners, and a committee of concerned citizen activists is being organized to advocate for passage of the tax question.

The committee, which numbered 15 members as of Tuesday, is composed of such noted Carbondale-area luminaries as local philanthropist Jim Calaway, Pour House restaurant manager Skip Bell, local resident Casey Sheehan, Dr. Sandy Devany, rancher Kit Strang, KDNK manager Steve Skinner, and former Carbondale mayor Michael Hassig.

“And there are more who want to join in,” said Carbondale attorney Tom Adgate, who is heading up the committee. “By this time next week, it should be a Who’s Who of people who care about Carbondale.”

The CRFPD is a sprawling district that covers about 320 square miles in terrain stretching from Marble in the south to Spring Valley in the north.

Founded in 1953, the department has 19 career (paid) personnel and 68 volunteer personnel, according to information on its website, www.carbondalefire.org.

The pro-tax-hike committee is made up of ordinary citizens, Adgate explained, and has no direct tie to the fire district itself.

Fire district board members and employees are prevented by law from actively campaigning on behalf of the tax question, according to information provided to the board by fire district attorney Eric Gross.

Gross provided a summary of the state’s Fair Campaign Practices Act, regarding special-district elections, which explains that the district, as a taxing entity, “may not make contributions or contributions in kind to campaigns” involving board-member elections or “any issue before the electorate.”

In addition, according to Gross’ information, district board members “may expend not more than $50 of district funds on letters, telephone calls, or other activities incident to making statements or answering questions concerning the issue.”

Districts are permitted, though, to spend taxpayer funds “to dispense fair and balanced information on any issue of official concern before the electorate.

Such information “must be factual, must include arguments both for and against the proposal, and cannot contain a conclusion or opinion in favor of or against any issue.”

State law does not, however, prohibit district employees or board members from advocating for passage of the tax question “on his or her own time, or spending his or her own funds to urge electors to vote in favor of or against any issue before the electorate.”

Adgate explained that he decided to take up the committee work on his own, although he noted that his wife is a volunteer fire fighter with the CRFPD.

“We’re just going to try to educate the community,” Adgate declared, referring to the ballot question’s request for a tax hike that will generate close to $600,000 in additional annual property tax revenue for the district’s coffers, on top of what the district now collects each year.

The money is needed, according to advocates of the tax hike, to overcome an estimated 40 percent loss in revenue as a consequence of the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

Over the last few years, property values plummeted due to the recession, leading to the loss of revenue for the district, and the regional economy has been slow to recover since then. Current estimates are that the district’s revenues will regain roughly 25 percent of their value for the 2015 tax year, although district officials are doubtful the resulting revenues will be sufficient to overcome the losses incurred in the last couple of years.

The current tax-hike campaign also is a reaction to a 2013 tax-increase request by the district, which was shot down by the electorate.

Voters in 2013 questioned the size of the increase, which would have nearly doubled the district’s annual property tax income, and the lack of a “sunset clause” that would have restricted the duration of the tax increase to a certain amount of time.

For this tax hike, after considerable discussion, the fire board agreed to impose a two-year sunset clause, meaning the tax increase would expire after 2017.

After that, if district funds remain lower than needed to fully fund the district’s operations, the fire board has indicated it may decide to go back to the voters for another revenue boost.

Another outcome from the 2013 electoral defeat was the district’s decision to put together an updated master plan, since a 2004 master plan was only meant to last for 10 years and was considered outdated by 2014.

An electronic version of that new master plan, compiled by a team of consultants at a cost of nearly $87,000, can be found at the fire district’s website. Printed copies of the master plan may be obtained from the fire district, by calling 963-2491 or visiting the district’s headquarters building, 301 Meadowood Drive, at the corner of Meadowood and Highway 133 at the south end of town.

In the meantime, Adgate said, a Facebook page has been created for the campaign to win passage of the tax hike (www.facebook.com/Citizens4aSafeCommunity) and the committee is getting to work on its plan for convincing voters that the tax hike is warranted.

Adgate said there will be community-wide meetings to discuss the tax hike, though no meeting dates had been decided as of Tuesday.

“I think once the people get the facts, they’ll be in full support,” Adgate said of the campaign.

Looking back at 2013, Adgate conceded, “the district overreached a little bit last time,” when the district asked voters for a 6-mill tax increase over the existing mill levy 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 an Aug. 19 meeting of the fire board.

“Heck, last time I even voted against it,” Adgate admitted.

But this time, he continued, the district is asking for less than a third of the amount requested in 2013, and unlike the 2013 election, there will be an active force of community members working on behalf of the tax hike.

“It was handled poorly last time,” Adgate recalled, “and we’re going to handle it right this time.”

Published in The Sopris Sun on September 3, 2015.