Aspen Times editorial: With more tax dollars comes more scrutiny for Aspen Fire District |

Aspen Times editorial: With more tax dollars comes more scrutiny for Aspen Fire District

Aspen Times Editorial Board

The Aspen Fire Department has been making headlines in the past few months, with some of the news coverage uncomplimentary as heads of public safety agencies and local government, as well as the rank and file, have aired their grievances about the chief’s leadership deficiencies.

The Aspen Fire Protection District, which is the special district that funds the fire department through property taxes, is a public entity that is not accustomed to that kind of heightened scrutiny.

But after decades of flying under the radar, the light is being shone on the organization, its leadership and its board of directors, who are elected officials but haven’t acted like it, until recently.

After going to voters in 2018 and successfully asking for $3.3 million annually in additional property taxes in the form of a mill levy, which will bring $55 million to the district over the next 20 years, the board should expect to be even more accountable to the public.

The district and the fire department have moved quickly since that influx of taxpayer money started flowing in, including breaking ground on a multimillion-dollar workforce housing project across from the airport and hiring roughly a dozen new full-time firefighters to complement a cadre of longtime volunteers.

We recognize the difficulties and dynamics involved in integrating career firefighters into a 140-year history of volunteer firefighting, but the internal issues have been smoldering for years prior.

That was until firefighters and leaders in the world of public safety felt emboldened enough to go to the press and do some whistle blowing.

Their problem has been with the chief, Rick Balentine, who has been described as non-communicative and ego-driven in his management and leadership style. That’s both in the firehouse and with outside agencies, according to reporting by The Aspen Times.

Board members in recent years, and months, have been approached by firefighters and public safety officials, making them aware of their issues. But the elected officials have been slow to take action on the one employee they are statutorily required to manage.

We understand they are in a new role of sorts, taking on the monumental changes of a fire department that has been traditionally a small-town operation that now has a $5 million-plus annual budget.

But when board members see SOS smoke signals, they need to act quicker. It’s all come to a head, which the board has acknowledged, but we wish the response time had been more urgent.

We recognize that it’s hard to run an organization where 100% of employees are fully satisfied with their work and their bosses, but dissension among the ranks, unrest in the public safety community and a history of leadership challenges rises to the level of action.

Board chair John Ward said in a recent meeting that if people don’t like their boss, they can quit. While that might be fine in the private sector, when it comes to public safety positions funded by citizens, those elected to keep the district running need to listen on every level.

Other board comments have downplayed the rifts between Aspen Fire and other agencies, suggesting that it was the others who have flexed their muscles in the local political sphere, not Balentine.

This no longer is a good ol’ boy citizen board who chats about how great the volunteers are and calls it a meeting. This board’s decisions have an effect on every one of us. Those who own property here are not only paying a new mill levy, the district’s Insurance Services Office directly affects how much we pay in home insurance.

The district is responsible for protecting $30 billion worth of actual property value in 87 square miles, so we are encouraged that a recent assessment and strategic planning process is focused on improving response times and firefighter training.

Balentine, who became the chief in 2014, deserves credit for embracing outside scrutiny through community and internal staff surveys and allowing a strategic plan to be built from the ground up by an internal planning team made up of staff and firefighters with little to no input from him.

The board deserves credit, too, for taking the district and the fire department to the next level of professionalism with an outside analysis and an internal process to make the organization stronger, with happy and satisfied employees.

Once board members recognized the issues swirling around Balentine, they acted by reducing his employment contract to one year from two consecutive three-year contracts, but failed last fall to put any real measurement goals in place to show accountability or transparency.

At the beginning of this year, some board members suggested a six-month contract in a sort of knee-jerk reaction to what they were hearing. But they recognized, rightly so, that they still did not have measurable goals, so they gave Balentine a year to change his ways and right the ship.

In April, the board approved a list of goals for the chief, and got as specific as “provide one example of how you have involved an officer or staff member with a difficult decision,” and increase employee morale by the end of the second quarter.

Balentine also is asked to provide documentation that he has contacted members of the Public Safety Council and solicit feedback on how the protection district can better communicate and collaborate with them.

One would be hard-pressed to find the chief’s goals or other key information on the district’s website, which only recently was updated with meeting agendas, packets and minutes going back to July 2020 after a request from The Aspen Times.

It would also be transparent to put the annual budget on the website, along with the strategic plan and the results of the community and internal firefighter surveys in an easily located place.

Transparency goes all the way down to the I’s being dotted and the T’s being crossed, so full agenda packets for upcoming meetings are expected on the website, like other government organizations do. It’s important for citizens to be able to follow what is going to be discussed and be able to participate with some knowledge on the topic if they choose to do so.

A check-in on the progress of Balentine’s goals is expected at the board’s July 6 meeting. We are hopeful that the board continues tracking progress. It’s refreshing to see the pivot and response in recent months.

However, the board needs to be even more proactive and reach out to other public safety leaders, as well as firefighters, and really listen to their concerns to ensure there are no embers left burning at the end of 2021.

The Aspen Times editorial board is comprised of publisher Samantha Johnston, editor David Krause, reporters Rick Carroll, Scott Condon and Carolyn Sackariason and copy editor/columnist Sean Beckwith.

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