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Carbondale Fire District’s current budget issues date to ‘04

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Paramedic level service is key

By John Colson

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Sopris Sun Staff Writer

There are only about three weeks left before the Nov. 3 election, and ballots were scheduled to be mailed out this week to voters in general, including those who will decide the fate of a tax hike requested by the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District.

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And although the management of the district remains concerned about the impending election, Fire Chief Ron Leach said he is determined to avoid feeling one way or another about passage of a proposed two-year tax increase that would boost the district lagging revenues enough to keep the district operating somewhat normally for the time being.

“I’m not optimistic or pessimistic,” Leach told The Sopris Sun this week. “I’m just trying to do my job and let the political process take its course.”

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The district has been trying to dig itself out of a financial hole caused by the recent recession, during which property values plummeted and the district’s revenues fell off the same cliff, since the district gets the lion’s share of its income from property taxes.

The tax question asks voters to approve a 1.75 mill increase in the tax rate, which would boost district revenues by about $600,000 a year, enough to upgrade equipment and facilities, provide more training for personnel, and hire back three positions that were dropped two years ago as a result of falling revenues.

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Back in 2004

The fire district election also is one consequence of a set of circumstances going back 12 years, all the way to a 2004 election in which the district’s voters approved a $6.75 million bond issue and a 1.5 mill increase in the district’s tax rate.

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The resultant increase in revenues was needed, the district told taxpayers at the time, to pay for upgrades to the district’s fire stations, equipment and other infrastructure, and for an upgrade to the district’s level of emergency medical training to what is known as Paramedic-Level — the highest level of training for emergency medical technicians working for an ambulance service.

The two revenue-enhancing measures were approved decisively, by a vote of about 500-140, although news stories describing the district’s needs focused mainly on the infrastructure improvements — the buildings and equipment — rather than on the enhancement of the training of medical technicians.

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Fire Chief Ron Leach, in interviews with The Sopris Sun, confirmed that in the ensuing 12 years or so, the district has trained-up its emergency medical technician (EMT) staff.

Back in 2004, he said, the district had perhaps one Paramedical-Level ambulance worker, with three trained to the EMT-Intermediate Level (EMT-I), one step below paramedics, for a total of four paid emergency medical personnel.

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Today, Leach said, the department has six Paramedic-Level medical personnel, three EMT-I staffers and one EMT-B (or basic skill-level), in the “operations” division of the fire department, meaning their primary duties are to respond to emergency medical calls from district residents.

On top of that, Leach said, four of the department’s administrators — himself, Deputy Chief Rob Goodwin, Fire Marshall Bill Gavette, and Emergency Medical Services Coordinator Jake Spalding — are trained to the EMT-I level and are on-call to respond to medical emergencies, as is one of the district’s two-man maintenance crew, who is trained at the EMT-B level.

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Taken together, the presence of those 15 EMTs provides the department with its highest training level possible for ambulance calls, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“It’s taken us 12 years to get to where we are now,” Leach said in a telephone interview with The Sopris Sun.

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The budget

The department’s budget currently stands at approximately $2.5 million in the general fund, derived from property taxes and other revenues.

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Of that, Leach said, about $1.9 million goes to paychecks for the department’s 18 paid personnel. The remainder of the department’s fire-fighting and emergency medical personnel are volunteers.

Although Leach said it would be very difficult to say exactly how much of that $1.9 million goes to the paid EMTs, he said that if the department had no ambulance service at all, and thus no EMTs at any level of training, the department would have approximately four or five paid staff — the chief, the fire marshall, an administrative assistant and a maintenance/mechanic technician, and perhaps one other staffer.

“I would say four or five paid people, if we did not have any ambulance service,” he said, estimating that the cost of that level of paid staff would be about $500,000, compared to the $1.9 million currently paid out for salaries and benefits.

This would mean that the district currently pays about $1.4 million in salaries for its emergency medical staff, as well as approximately $250,000 spent annually on drugs, a physician advisor to the EMTs, ambulances and equipment, and training.

Without that ambulance service, the personnel costs of the district would drop off drastically, Leach acknowledged, though the fire district then would simply be a fire department, much as the Aspen Fire District is today.

But the district’s taxpayers — according to Leach, the fire district board of directors and other officials — clearly wanted back in 2004 that the district provide advanced-level emergency medical and ambulance services.

Voters also approved a temporary tax hike in 2011, which helped the fire district weather the worst of the financial downturn, but then rejected a much larger,  permanent tax hike in 2013.

The district currently is in what Leach said is “not a good situation” with regard to its emergency medical services.

The current staffing level means that, at any one time, there are at most three highly trained EMS personnel standing ready to go out on a fire call.

If one of them is out sick, or out of town, that ambulance team is reduced to two, Leach said — a driver and a paramedic or EMT to ride in the back with the patient.

Approval of the tax increase, Leach said, would bring the staffing back up to four available paramedics or EMTs on call at any given time, which he felt is an improvement in the level of service provided to taxpayers who need emergency medical help.

Published in The Sopris Sun on October 15, 2015.