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Carbondale fire district preps for May 3 board election

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By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

The Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District is preparing for a May 3 election of district board members, although district officials are prepared for that election to not be held.

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At its Jan. 13 fire board meeting, the district’s directors approved a resolution that, first and foremost, appointed Fire Chief Ron Leach as the official “designated election official” or DEO, charged with overseeing the election.

The second clause of the resolution provides that the DEO is authorized to cancel the election “if the only matter before the electors is the election of persons to office” and “if, at the close of business on the sixty-third day before the election there are not more candidates than offices to be filled.”

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There are two seats up for election this year, those currently held by Bob Emerson and Lou Eller, said Leach, who added that there are no term limits that apply to fire district board members.

Eller on Tuesday confirmed that he plans to run for re-election this spring.

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“I have 16 years experience on the fire board, eight years on the Spring Valley Sanitation District board, and three years on the Marble Charter School board,” Eller wrote in an e-mail to The Sopris Sun. “I know the special district regulations fairly well and look forward to serving the district residents an additional four years.”

Emerson could not be reached on Tuesday concerning whether he plans to seek re-election.

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Nominating petitions are available now for prospective candidates, according to Leach, and they must be filled out and returned to the fire district headquarters by Feb. 26 in order for the candidates’ names to be included on the ballot.

These are “self-nominating petitions,” Leach explained, meaning that prospective candidates need only fill in their own names, along with a signature by a qualified elector as witness, to be placed on the ballot.

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Leach, on Tuesday, noted that while he has the authority to cancel the election if only two candidates sign up to run for the vacant seats, there are circumstances under which cancellation is not an option.

For example, if both Emerson and Eller decide to run for re-election, but no one else submits a nominating petition by the Feb. 26 deadline, cancellation of the election might be in order as a way to save district funds, Leach and other officials have said.

Board member Mike Kennedy, at the Jan. 13 board meeting, estimated that an election can cost the district up to $18,000 if conducted by mail-in ballot, or roughly $7,000 if conducted at polling places around the district.

But, Leach continued, there is a period following the Feb. 26 deadline during which one or more write-in candidates could declare an interest in serving on the board. And while write-in candidates’ names would not appear on the ballot (because the deadline had been missed) the election still must be held to afford all candidates a chance to win election, Leach continued.

That write-in deadline date is Feb. 29, three days after the initial petition deadline, and Leach said the decision on whether to cancel the election or not can be made on March 1 at the earliest.

The board’s newest member, former fire fighter Carl Smith, in a posting to an Internet-based chat group here in Carbondale last month, urged local residents to get involved with the fire district election.

“This is a great opportunity for you to serve your community by seeking a position on the Fire District Board,” Smith wrote. “You may think you can’t do it, but I was never an elected official until two years ago. You do not have to be an expert on fire departments, you do need to want to serve your community and be part of a great organization that provides an excellent service to the community. Think about it.”

The district board is made up of five directors, who now include board president Gene Schilling, vice-president Mike Kennedy, secretary-treasurer Lou Eller, and directors Bob Emerson and Carl Smith.

Typically, the board of directors meets on the second Wednesday of each month, at 5:30 p.m., at the main fire department headquarters at 301 Meadowood Drive in Carbondale, unless there are special reasons to meet more frequently.

That has happened in the last year, as the board dealt with a chronic shortage of funds thanks to the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, when the district’s assessed valuation of property and thus its main income from property taxes fell by around 40 percent.

District voters twice agreed to increase taxes, initially starting in 2011, in the form of a mill-levy override that permitted the district to raise its tax rate under a two-year “sunset clause.”

But when the district tried to win a permanent tax hike in 2013, which essentially would have doubled the district’s tax rate with no sunset date, the voters balked.

Last year, as the district was staring at serious budget shortfalls and perhaps a need to cut paid staff and reduce other costs, the voters agreed to a second tax hike, again with a two-year “sunset clause” that called for the tax hike to expire after 2017.

The district’s board of directors already, at meetings in 2015 and so far this year, has begun debating whether to ask for some sort of tax hike or other revenue measure in 2017 or 2018, to keep the district’s income at a sustainable level for the provision of fire fighting and emergency medical services.

Published in The Sopris Sun on February 4, 2016.

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