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Critics question need for fire district vote this year

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By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

As voters in the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District cast their mail-in ballots regarding a two-year tax hike sought by the fire district, there remain some questions about why the district chose to seek a tax hike this year instead of some time in the future.

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In commentaries sent to local newspapers and in discussion groups on the Internet, some have argued that the district is moving too quickly with the tax increase question on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The district’s board of directors, the fire department management and the voters, according to critics, have not spent enough time analyzing a recently released 10-year fire district master plan to adequately explain to voters why the tax hike should be approved.

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Fire district officials, however, have consistently maintained that the tax hike is a necessary “stop-gap measure” to provide needed funding for equipment, training and personnel, and to allow the district to provide services without further dipping into the district’s diminishing cash reserves.

The two-year duration of the tax hike, district officials have said, will provide time to completely analyze the master plan, including a list of 75 recommendations from the consultants who drew up the master plan.

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The two-year interval also is meant to give the district time to present the master plan to taxpayers, and provide some idea of the fire department’s future course of actions.

District officials have cited statements or other indications from the master-plan consultants — Almont Associates of Florida, Mark Chain Consulting of Carbondale and Leslie Lamont of Lamont Planning Services — that have prompted the fire board to go for a tax increase this fall rather than next year or later.

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In fact, according to Fire Chief Ron Leach in an interview this week, the only official reluctance about an election this year came from a special steering committee of citizens appointed earlier this year to work on the master plan process and make recommendations to the board about where the district should go from here.

The master plan process, and the Nov. 3 ballot question, is in response to the district’s ongoing financial woes resulting from the Great Recession of 2008-09, which caused property values in the district to plummet. Because the fire district gets most of its revenues from property taxes, the district’s income dropped by an estimated 40 percent in recent years and has yet to fully recover.

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District voters approved a two-year tax increase in 2011 that helped fire officials weather the worst of the recession, but in 2013 rejected a request from the district that essentially would have doubled the district’s tax rate for an unspecified length of time.

Over the past two years, the district has dipped into its cash reserves in order to maintain service levels as much as possible, although the reduced revenues has forced the district to eliminate three Emergency Service Technician positions and make other reductions in operating expenses.

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A citizens’ advisory committee (CAC), which met over several months in 2014, recommended the district move immediately to update its 10-year-old master plan before going back to the voters for another tax-hike request.

A second citizen committee, known as the Master Plan Task Force Steering Committee, was formed earlier this year to guide creation of the master plan and offer suggestions to the fire district’s board of directors regarding the district’s financial and operational future.

The steering committee, made up primarily of citizens familiar with fire district operations and needs, recommended against going to the taxpayers for a tax hike this year, in favor of closely analyzing the master plan and its recommendations, and coming up with a strategic plan for the district’s future.

But the fire board opted instead to follow the recommendations of its consultants and try for a tax increase this year to boost the district’s revenues and allow the district to begin to rebuild its cash reserves.

Leach explained that, if the tax hike is approved by voters, the fire district staff plans to conduct monthly meetings over the coming year to introduce the findings of the master plan to the public, and to come up with a strategic plan for fire and ambulance operations covering the next five to 10 years.

Leach said the fire board decided recently that these follow-up meetings should not be conducted by consultants Mark Chain and Leslie Lamont, who were in charge of the public outreach portion of the master planning process earlier in the year.

“The board of directors decided it was best that the fire district staff present the master plan to the public,” Leach told The Sopris Sun on Monday.

“I think the first one will probably be after the election’s over,” possibly on a Wednesday in November, Leach continued, and will continue on a monthly basis for about a year.

But the fact that the plan has yet to be formally shown to the public is what has concerned some of the district’s critics, including Carbondale Trustee Allyn Harvey, who wrote in a Sept. 16 column for the Glenwood Springs Post Independent that he would not vote in favor of the tax hike for that reason, among others.

“Put bluntly,” Harvey wrote, “this tax increase feels like a rush job.”

Harvey served on the CAC in 2014, and wrote that “many of us” on that committee felt that the district should wait until 2016 to seek a tax increase, a contention supported by another CAP participant, former Carbondale Town Manager Davis Farrar of Missouri Heights, who currently works as a planning and management consultant for several Western Slope communities (see the Oct. 15 edition of The Sopris Sun).

“The fire board has hardly had time to digest their adopted master plan, let alone put in place solid financial strategies,” Farrar wrote in an opinion piece. “The new master plan has not even been presented to the public for input.”

Lamont, in a telephone interview this week, said the fire board first decided in August that she and Chain should not be the ones conducting the follow-up meetings, and that their consulting fees should be reduced accordingly, although she could not recall the exact amounts.

She added that she felt it was the board’s “prerogative” to do so, and that in the end the public would get the information it needed in order to fully understand the master plan and the district’s operational needs.

Published in The Sopris Sun on October 22, 2015.

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