GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario has recently scored a victory in his battle against a state fund used to handle massive wildfires.
Vallario said Colorado State University, which manages the fund, has been charging counties too much money for doing basic paperwork involved with firefighting.
After a meeting with Vallario and other critics from across the state, CSU officials agreed to slash its fees nearly in half, dropping them from 23 percent to 13 percent for the next two years, while a task force works to create a new fee system.
The move could save county fire agencies across the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in processing fees.
“It seems like a lot of money for somebody to process bills,” said Vallario, who championed the issue with the support of the County Sheriffs of Colorado and the state Fire Chiefs Association.
The state’s wildland firefighting fund serves as a sort of insurance policy for local agencies in the event of large wildfires that could exceed their ability to cover the costs.
When an outside agency, either from a neighboring county or another state, comes in to help put out the fire, the agency submits a bill to the Colorado State Forest Service, which passes on the bill to CSU, which oversees the agency.
CSU charges local agencies an administrative fee. In the event of a large fire or during a busy fire season, those fees can add up.
Last year, Vallario said, CSU collected more than $600,000 from local agencies in what was a fairly slow fire season. In some years, he said, it can exceed $2 million.
Vallario said he had racked up some $13,000 in indirect fees over several years that he had refused to pay.
The fees aren’t only too high, Vallario said. They were set between CSU and the federal Department of Health and Human Services, without any Garfield County representation.
“Did anybody invite the sheriffs or the commissioners or the fire chiefs? The answer is no,” he said. “It was kind of imposed on us without any voice at the table.”
In an edition of his periodic newsletter “Just the Facts,” Vallario likened his protest to the Boston Tea Party.
“Taxation without representation is what the Boston Tea Party was all about when the American Colonists chose to demonstrate their displeasure over unfair taxes imposed by the British Government,” he wrote.
CSU officials say the fees are standard practice for universities and are equivalent to those of other universities and federal agencies. The fees aren’t limited to fighting fires. All off-campus programs working with CSU are asked to pay the 23 percent rate. On-campus programs pay a 47 percent fee. Those fees were set six years ago.
Vallario and other critics, though, have complained that the high cost of wildfire fighting can leave counties and fire agencies paying CSU exorbitant fees for performing rudimentary paperwork.
The lower fees go into effect July 1, at the beginning of the university’s fiscal year. That’s well after the fire season starts.
“I told all the fire chiefs not to have any wildland fires until July 1,” Vallario joked.
Vallario, a Republican, is up for reelection this November. He’s facing a challenge from Tom Dalessandri, a Democrat and former Garfield County Sheriff, and a possible primary challenge from Republican Doug Winters, an Eagle County Sheriff’s detective and Rifle resident.
Both have criticized Vallario’s budget as being too high.
“Everybody’s clamoring about my ‘outrageous budget,’” he said. “So 10 percent of anything is always good.”