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March 12, 2013
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Board talks new hire at fire department

SNOWMASS VILLAGE - The intention of a property tax increase that would benefit the Snowmass Wildcat Fire Protection District is being questioned by some firefighters now that the board of directors is considering creating a new position.

Firefighter Jake Andersen's column in this week's Snowmass Sun takes issue with the consideration of the new position, after the department campaigned last fall to pass a "no growth" ballot measure approving a mill-levy increase to be collected by the fire district.

"The funds that would be achieved from this are not funds that are going to grow the fire department, add any positions or build a new station or any of that," Fire Marshal John Mele told the Sun in October. "It's basically just to try and make up for lost revenues over the past four years."

The voter-approved increase would raise the fire district taxes collected by as much as $800,000 over the next two years. The mill-levy increase was proposed because of an expected drop in property values this year. However, because the department earned some funds by fighting wildland fires in other areas last year and saw revenue in other areas, as well, the board of directors chose not to collect the full amount of the increase approved, and talk of this position resurfaced.

Chief Steve Sowles said he has approached the board in the past about creating a position and setting up a succession plan for his role when funds became available. Mele, who is also deputy chief, is 62 and will likely retire in the next few years. Sowles says he plans to retire from the fire service once he decides to leave his position so that he can focus on a scholarship foundation he owns.

The new position would be an operations training officer and would be open to people currently employed by the department.

"The firefighters aren't going to leapfrog to my position," Sowles said. "It takes a long time to get where I am. ... Fire departments like to hire the chief from within."

Sowles said in 2010, when he asked the board to consider hiring this position, firefighters voiced their opinion then and were given a 4 percent cost-of-living increase instead.

For Andersen, who helped campaign to get the mill-levy increase passed, "it feels like a slap in the face," he said.

"This is supposed to be a no-growth measure, and even if he is choosing to use the surplus funds that were found to fund that position, I feel that even doing it on a technicality like that is misleading our public," Andersen said.

Richard Collins, a professor at University of Colorado Law School, said challenges must be made very shortly after elections. A challenge in courts probably would not stand, he said, because the language of the ballot measure did not say how the money would be spent.

"My offhand feeling is that a challenge that would try to enjoin them from spending the money as they promised is not going to succeed, that the courts wouldn't entertain that," Collins said. "Since it's not on the ballot and there's no established procedure for doing that, I doubt it would work."

The position has not been budgeted yet. Sowles said ideally he would like to see it filled in June.

jbeathard@snowmasssun.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Mar 12, 2013 05:34PM Published Mar 12, 2013 05:32PM Copyright 2013 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.