Carbondale, Basalt fire departments investigating merger

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

BASALT – At a time when Colorado governments are under fire for growing too big and spending too much, two midvalley fire protection districts are looking into a merger to try to save taxpayer money.

The fire chiefs for Basalt and Carbondale were directed by the board of directors for the fire districts in the towns to research if consolidation makes sense and, if so, investigate how to pull it off. Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach and Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said they will have a preliminary report for their boards in January or February.

The move will only be pursued if it saves money for the communities, Thompson said.

Leach said three big criteria are: will a merger keep taxes down; will it eliminate redundancies in the two departments; and will it increase efficiency.

Full consolidation will be studied, and they will also look at steps that could be taken to save money short of a merger. Duties such as finance, building and vehicle maintenance, legal, training for both medical responders and firefighters, and overall management are ripe for cost savings, the chiefs said.

“There’s a lot of middle ground between being separate [departments] and full consolidation,” Leach said.

They acknowledged that one of the tough questions will be whether two fire chiefs are needed. Thompson said he was inclined to think the greatest savings would be from paring down upper management in a merged operation.

The cost-savings investigation is particularly timely because revenues from property taxes are expected to plummet in 2012. Colorado reappraises property every two years for purposes of figuring taxes. The reassessment due in May 2011 will reflect property values that fell 30 percent or more in the midvalley during the recession and its aftermath. That will affect the coffers of taxing districts in 2012.

“How do we provide the same services with less money?” Thompson asked. The answer might be in partial or full consolidation, he said.

Bob Guion, president of the board of directors at the Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District, has been on the board for 12 years, and pondering consolidation for a decade. It’s a natural progression for the two small districts, he said.

“I’m very excited about the prospect,” Guion said. “In my mind, it makes sense for both of these districts.”

Carbondale’s district stretches from Marble into Missouri Heights. It had a budget of $2.7 million for operating and capital expenses this year.

Basalt’s district stretches from Thomasville and Meredith to Old Snowmass and to El Jebel. It had a budget of $2.48 million this year.

Both districts’ budgets have been flat in recent years, and both entities are trying to save money to offset the anticipated drop in property tax revenues.

“If you do your research, I think we’re pretty frugal,” Leach said.

Combined, the districts cover about 1,000 square miles of territory, most of it rural with low-density housing in areas susceptible to wildfire. The districts share so many characteristics in common that some level of consolidations makes sense, Thompson said.

Guion said full consolidation would be accomplished by forming an authority that encompasses both existing districts. Both board of directors would have to approve the step, and then the proposal would have to be reviewed by constituents.

“As I understand it, it would have to go to a vote,” Guion said.

Considering the “backlash” against big government, he said consolidation is the responsible action to study. Colorado voters are deciding the fate today of constitutional Amendments 60 and 61, which would drastically curtail spending and taxing by special districts.

The consolidation study has been very transparent, even though it is in its infancy. Leach and Thompson said both the paid staffs of their departments as well as the volunteers have been informed about the interest in a merger.

“We’re not trying to put anybody out of a job. We’re not trying to get rid of volunteers,” Thompson said.

If a partial or full merger is pursued, it will be over time, and personnel reductions would be accomplished through attrition, the fire chiefs said.

The action also wouldn’t eliminate any primary or satellite fire stations, which are strategically positioned for firefighting and to reflect favorably on constituents’ insurance premiums. Basalt has four stations, including Old Snowmass and the Upper Fryingpan, while Carbondale has five, including Redstone, Marble and Missouri Heights.

It would also be important for the departments to retain their identities even in a merger, said Leach, Carbondale fire chief for 28 years, and Thompson, Basalt’s fire chief for 11 years.

“We don’t want to lose the local flavor, and to me, the local flavor is the volunteers,” Thompson said.

Basalt has 13 paid staff, from a mechanic to medical responders to the fire chief, and 55 volunteers. Carbondale has 18 paid staff and 60 volunteers.

Guion said a merger isn’t a clever way to increase the size of the paid staff. It’s about saving taxpayer funds.

“We both fully intend to remain volunteer-centric,” he said.


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