By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
The Carbondale Fire District goes into the new year with a considerably rosier outlook, financially speaking, than has been the case for the last couple of years, thanks to a recent tax hike approved by district voters.
And a large portion of that improved outlook concerns the district’s paid personnel — 18 full-time firefighters and emergency medical technicians currently, but with plans to hire three more full-time fire fighters/paramedics in 2016.
The district’s voters on Nov. 3 approved a tax hike that, along with increases in the assessed values of property throughout the district, is expected to generate nearly $1 million in new revenues for the coming year, according to a report on the 2016 budget by Fire Chief Ron Leach.
Overall, with all income sources included, the 2016 budget for the district is projected at $2.67 million in operating revenues and expenses, also known as the General Fund, of which $2.54 million is from property taxes.
Of the total General Fund budget, according to documents on file at the district, personnel costs account for $2.1 million, which includes wages and salaries, benefits and a variety of related expenses covering the work of the department’s 18 paid personnel. The district also has about 65 volunteers who respond to fires and other calls for service, along with the paid employees.
One important part of the personnel costs, as described by fire district officials in the run-up to the Nov. 3 election, is the hiring of three new firefighters/paramedics over the course of the coming year, to replace three employees who were let go in 2013 as the district dealt with revenue shortfalls due to the recent Great Recession.
According to figures provided by the district, the three new employees will be hired in January, July and October, and the district calculates that the partial-year salary amounts are projected to cost a total of $98,405 in 2016.
The individual salaries of the three are projected to be $55,517, Leach said, adding that their total salaries will be figured into the department’s budget for 2017 and into the future.
The department recently conducted a survey of salaries among neighboring fire districts, including the departments of Basalt, Snowmass Village, Glenwood Springs and the Colorado River Valley (Rifle through New Castle).
According to that survey, a firefighter/
paramedic in Carbondale this year was earning a base-pay salary between $45,487 and $49,461, depending on his or her level of medical training.
In other districts of departments, the survey indicated, base salaries for similar jobs were reported as ranging up to $61,198, without any benefits added on.
Leach explained that the salaries he gave out for Carbondale’s new hires, just over $55,500, includes holiday pay and a certain amount of overtime pay that traditionally is built into the firefighters’ pay. In essence, Leach said, the new hires will be coming in at the highest base-pay level as was indicated in the salary survey, or $49,461.
Another aspect of the recently adopted fire district budget is a three-percent, across-the-board raise approved by the fire board for all of the district’s paid employees.
Board member Carl Smith told The Sopris Sun in an e-mail that the raise would cost the district a total of $39,911 for all paid employees, but that the actual, individual raises would differ depending on the current salary being earned by particular firefighters.
Smith said he argued that each firefighter in the district should receive the same dollar amount, which would translate to a raise of $2,217 per paid employee, rather than higher raises for those earning more money already. This arrangement, Smith said, would mean “an obvious greater amount going to the lower paid employees” than a percentile raise.
The board, however, went for the percentile raise instead.
For the district’s highest-paid employee, Leach, that will mean a raise of about $3,448 next year from his current salary of $114,965, to a new salary of about $118,414.
Other salaries reported in the survey include that of the deputy fire chief in charge of operations ($87,470); the training chief officer, ($81,749); the fire marshal ($90,820); and the finance director ($75,172), among others.
Although the survey did not identify the neighboring departments specifically, it indicated that in many cases other districts and departments pay their personnel at higher rates than does Carbondale.
For example, basic firefighter pay in three of the four local districts/departments is higher than the Carbondale Fire District, as are the salaries paid to chiefs, deputy chiefs and financial officers.
The survey was requested by board members earlier in the year, as a way to determine how the Carbondale Fire District ranks compared to others in terms of salaries, given that officials have long been concerned that Carbondale has trained fire fighters only to see them leave the CVFPD and go to work for other, nearby districts where the pay is somewhat higher.
The Carbondale district covers roughly 320 square miles of territory in the Roaring Fork and Crystal River valleys, generally encompassing an area from Spring Valley and Missouri Heights in the north, to the town of Marble in the south, and including the communities of Carbondale and Redstone.
As of November, according to a report by Deputy Fire Chief Ron Goodwin, the district this year had responded to more than 1,000 calls for service. These included 577 emergency medical service incidents (58 of those were motor vehicle accidents); 59 fire calls (including such things as gas leaks, fuel spills, carbon monoxide alarms and actual fires); more than 140 fire-alarm calls that did not involve actual fires; and 284 “service and good-intent responses” that covered such things as smoke/odor checks, assistance to citizens and cancellations of calls en route from the station.
Published in The Sopris Sun on December 17, 2015.