By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
As the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District works on its budget for the coming year, one unknown factor continues to be the question of whether the district will ask voters this fall for a tax hike in 2018, to make up for the impending expiration of a two-year, temporary mill levy increase approved by voters in 2015.
A preliminary budget for 2018, provided by Fire Chief Ron Leach, shows how the district’s finances would look if a tax question does not make it onto the ballot this fall.
On the revenue side of the ledger, Leach projected that the district can expect to pull in about $2.2 million in tax revenues, including just over $2 million in property taxes, and about $255,000 in other revenue streams.
On the expense side, Leach estimated, the district is looking at spending a little more than $3.1 million on everything from personnel ($2.3 million) to administration ($245,000), along with expenditures for communications, training, equipment and facilities.
“It’s a no-growth budget,” said Leach in a telephone interview, explaining that he is still working on the budgetary details that he expects to present to the district’s board of directors at its July 12 meeting at the Carbondale Fire District Headquarters.
As it stands now, the district budget calls for a 2.8 percent increase “in all categories,” intended to keep the district’s finances at the same inflationary pace as the overall economy, including a 5 percent increase in salaries “across the board.”
As it has in many recent years, the district will need to dip into its reserve fund, which is projected to stand at more than $1.7 million at the end of 2017, in order to meet the expenses lined out in Leach’s budget.
According to that budget, Leach predicted that the district’s reserve fund will drop to $996,000 next year if all the projected expenditures are met (the budget document used for this report can be found at the fire district’s website, www.carbondalefire.org, by clicking on the “Board of Directors” button and scrolling down to the June 17 board packet.)
Aside from the hard numbers, Leach said he will not know how the district’s performance of its duties might be affected if no new revenue sources can be found.
“I don’t have really good answers,” Leach said, when asked if the budget might mean a reduction in the numbers of employees, cutbacks in such things as response time to emergency calls, or other hits to the district’s mission.
“I hope not,” he added.
Although the district has a need for a new ambulance and a new wildland brush truck, Leach pointed out, the budget does not contain a line item for either expenditure.
Also needed, he said, are about 20 new handheld emergency radio sets, which cost approximately $2,000 apiece.
But that need is not reflected in the budget, either.
Nor are a number of big-ticket capital costs, such as a $1.2 million training facility; or a $1 million vehicle maintenance facility for the district’s fleet of 22 vehicles (currently maintenance is conducted in one of the truck bays at the old firehouse), among other capital-fund projects that Leach said would need to be funded out of the district’s capital-project fund rather than the operations budget.
Speaking candidly, Leach said, “I think this budget illustrates the importance of extending the temporary mill levy increase that was passed in 2015,” though he was quick to add that the board has the final say on whether a tax question should be put to the voters.
The fire department is working off the tail end of that 2015 tax hike, in which voters agreed to tax themselves for an additional 1.75 mills each year for two years, and which was projected to boost the district’s annual revenue by nearly $600,000.
That tax hike was needed, district officials told the voters, to overcome years of reserve-fund depletion that started when the economy tanked in 2008 and area property values plummeted.
The 2015 mill levy approval was the second tax hike for the district in the wake of the 2008-09 recession (the first was in 2011), and followed on an electoral defeat in 2013 when the district sought a 6 mill tax hike in perpetuity. The voters rejected that tax question by a wide margin.