Voters Weigh In On Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District

May 4, 2014

Voters in Carbondale are making a decision tomorrow. Five people are running for three open seats on the Board of Directors, for the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District. The board helps steer the district, which is mostly made up of volunteer firefighters. And a failed tax measure last fall prompted controversy over whether the district is meeting residents' needs.  


Ron Leach is Chief of the fire district, a sizable stretch of land that covers from downtown Carbondale to Missouri Heights. The district puts out blazes and provides a lot of ambulance and medical services.

“We’re kind of in a flux about our future budgets.” 

The district is mostly volunteer, with some paid staff.

“The budgets for these fire districts is dependent on property tax values, and the property tax values are not out yet, so we don’t really know what our budget will be for next year, and we won’t know probably until about August.”

The District asked voters last fall for an increase in property taxes, spurring a debate about what exactly the money would go toward-- and whether more was necessary. Carl Smith is running for the fire District's board. 

"I was in great conflict over that. I was in conflict because I knew if it didn’t pass it would be very detrimental things that were gonna happen, you know the reduction in funds. I voted for that plan but I did it very reluctantly.”

The measure failed, leaving the District with only 40% of its original budget. Three positions were cut, and the summer fire crew no longer exists. Some training for emergencies is gone, and volunteers are taking on a bigger load. And there’s a larger issue about how the District can make that budget work in the coming years… which is why Smith is in the race. He volunteered with the Carbondale fire district for twelve years, at one time he served as Deputy Chief.

“My real concern is the District Board, and how they, have failed to develop a long term plan, and then review that plan on a regular basis.”

A plan that would tackle just how to handle those fluctuating property taxes… and make the budget more predictable. There is a plan on the books now, laying out how the district should operate from 2004 to 2014. but Smith and another challenger, Gary McElwee are concerned it hasn’t been used effectively. Gary McElwee also volunteered with the fire district.

“The current master plan, it’s ten years old, because of the economy today I believe it’s obsolete, and no effort’s ever been made to in the last five years to bring the fire department in line with the region’s changed economic realities.”

Three current board members are running to keep their seats in tomorrow's election. They say it would have cost too much to revise the plan. One current member is Gene Schilling, who's also chief of the Carbondale Police. He says the reality is, the current budget just isn't going to cut it down the road.

"From my end, we're gonna have to go out and ask for another tax increase."

Schilling points out not only have property taxes gone down… decreasing the district’s funds… they’re is also losing money because people aren't paying their ambulance bills. And that's a big chunk of the District's expenses.

"If that tax increase is defeated, then we're gonna have to look at how we're going to be able to provide the best services we can within the budget."

Incumbent Mike Kennedy, who's served for several years, agrees. He's pleased there's already more local participation to help navigate these decisions.

"We've set up this citizens task force, which is a really good cross section of the community to, to give us some direction on what they think we outta do going into the future."

Like what services locals want-- and what they're willing to pay for. Allyn Harvey is a member of the citizens group, but not a candidate in this election. He was a vocal critic of last year’s tax measure.

“You know of the things we’ve talked about is maybe surveying the District, sending out you known mail in surveys or something-- you know it’s expensive, I know Carbondale did that and it’s been extremely useful.”

Harvey serves on the Carbondale Board of Trustees. Crowdsourcing could answer at least one important question about the Fire District: whether residents still want paramedics on their ambulances. Everyone running in tomorrow’s election, points out voters approved having paramedics instead of EMTs... to better serve Mid-Valley residents because it can take a while get to the nearest hospital. But having paramedics is expensive, since they're more highly trained.

"You know I've been affected by the service. My wife had had heart surgery in the past, and we've had to go down to the hospital a couple of times, and it's just good know you can be taken care of."

Mark Chain is also on the board and is running again in tomorrow's election. Like all of the candidates, he's been a volunteer fire fighter with the Carbondale district. He believes the ambulance services are important-- especially with a growing and aging population. 

"I think we need to get our message out better, I think we need to be more proactive with the community and probably more transparent, you know, update the website and make sure people know what our story is."

It'll be up to residents whether to keep that story or change it. Ballots must be received by the District by 7pm tomorrow, Tuesday May 6th.