Colorado River Fire Rescue Station 43 sits empty after the station recently closed due to budget cuts.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent
Ike Fredregill [email protected]
With a dwindling budget, predicted upcoming revenue shortfalls and the voter’s denial of its mill levy proposal, Colorado River Fire Rescue (CRFR) is closing Fire Station No. 43 south of Rifle. Wildland fire crews will still store their equipment in the station, located at 419 Last Chance Drive, and apparatuses, such as fire engines and ambulances, will still occupy the building. But the station will no longer be staffed, CRFR Fire Chief Randy Callahan said. “What this boils down to is we will have one less engine crew and one less ambulance crew to help us cover our daily operations,” Callahan explained.
The fire chief is scheduled to retire in December, and Transitioning Fire Chief Leif Sackett will take his place. “Basically, I’m laying myself off as a result of our budget situation,” Callahan said. “But I took this job in the interim, so we always knew I would leave sooner rather than later.”
The budgetary constrictions come on the heels of Colorado’s diminishing extractive resources industry, and in May, voters said no to a mill levy that might have funded the six positions CRFR needed to staff Station No. 43, Sackett explained. “We’ve gone through the numbers,” he said. “And it makes sense to close that station based on call volume and where our demographics are at.”
Call volume might be less in the area Station No. 43 covers, but calls have steadily increased since the formation of CRFR around 2012, Callahan said. So far in 2020, year-to-date 911 calls have increased 11 percent since 2019. And yet, because of less revenue, CRFR has had to reduce the number of personnel available to respond to those calls. In 2018, CRFR kept a minimum of 13 staff on the clock for each of its three shifts, but by 2019, they lowered the minimum to 11.
Without funding from the mill levy, Callahan said CRFR is again reducing the minimum number of staff on the clock to nine. “Leading up to this, there’s been several staff reductions,” he explained. “And over the last two years, we’ve sold rolling stock to reduce capital costs.” When Callahan retires, CRFR will have reduced three division chief positions and a human resources position. While the positions have not been eliminated, he explained the duties for those positions were rolled into already existing positions.
Sackett said CRFR has pursued multiple funding options since 2016, many of which were grants that helped pay for new equipment and apparatuses. Currently, the department is debt-free, but Callahan said he’s concerned the next engine they buy will be purchased with credit. “It’s good for a fire department to always seek out these grant opportunities,” he said. “But a healthy budget should also have a capital side to it that’s saving for your fire trucks, and that’s something we no longer have.”
CRFR’s wildland crews are sent all over the country to fight fires, which can turn a profit, but the income only serves to continue the program. “Our five-year goal with the wildland program is to pay for itself,” Callahan said. “The money can be good, but it’s not consistent.”
Whereas 2020 is a hot year for fire crews, 2019 was one of the slowest Callahan has seen throughout his career with CRFR. When the department’s fire crews are away, their salaries are completely paid for by the fires they are assigned to, he said. “The real benefit of the wildland crews is the training and experience they bring back,” Callahan said.
CRFR’s budget situation could worsen going into 2021. Because the department operates in a special fire district, which covers Rifle, Silt and Battlement Mesa, their primary revenue is provided by property taxes. Those taxes are based on the County Assessor’s Office’s assessed valuations of the properties within the district, and Callahan said he’s heard predictions the valuations could be less than before, further reducing the department’s funding stream.
Despite a bleak revenue outlook, Sackett and Callahan said their mission and dedication to the community hasn’t changed. “Our woes are very, very real, but CRFR has a heart and soul of service, and we’re committed to that service,” Callahan said. “We’re taking an engine and an ambulance out of service, but we’re not giving up on our community.”