The Aspen Fire Protection District’s board has decided to put off a decision on whether to add paid firefighters to its mostly volunteer firefighting force, Fire Chief Rick Balentine said this week.
Instead, the district plans to move forward this year with a community outreach campaign to gauge local sentiment on that issue and others, Balentine said.
“The board wants to get some input from the community before we go too far with the proposal,” he said. “I think that’s a fabulous idea. Having the citizens tell us about their expectations of the department would be a great step.”
A report from a committee made up of 16 volunteer firefighters, presented to the board in April, suggests adding up to eight paid firefighter positions. At a work session on May 9, the board’s president and the fire district’s attorney proposed the idea of extensive community outreach, Balentine said.
When board members meet again on June 11, the fire chief will present them with options for hiring a professional facilitator to conduct the outreach. As of Wednesday, Balentine already had three names in hand. Their fees vary, but the cost of the effort is expected to fall somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000, according to preliminary estimates.
The parameters of the outreach have yet to be decided. Balentine mentioned various possibilities, including open houses at the downtown headquarters fire station on East Hopkins Avenue; meetings with residents and stakeholders at the station’s community room; surveys to gauge locals on their expectations of the department; and information relayed through social media and the district’s newsletter.
“There will be a community discussion of what we do and how we do it,” he said. “The board wants to know what level of service our public wants.”
Recently the board gave the green light for the department to hire a full-time training officer. Aside from that, Balentine has said he wants to hire seven full-time firefighters to complement the volunteer staff. With seven paid firefighters, the department would have the ability to staff two firefighters 24 hours a day, all year long, at its downtown Aspen and North 40 fire stations, he said, citing the committee’s findings.
Balentine said the outreach effort won’t be solely focused on the question of paid positions. He also said he hopes it will be an ongoing process, not just a “one and done” event this summer.
The department has a host of other initiatives on its plate, made possible by the successful November election in which the district’s voters approved a 1.32-mill property tax that will generate an estimated $3 million in its first year.
The new tax is expected to provide an estimated $54.8 million over the next 20 years, supplementing the district’s longtime .875-mill tax that currently generates about $2.1 million annually.
Prior to the election, Balentine spoke of the need for a new training officer, the rising cost of maintaining and upgrading equipment, and the proposed $16 million employee-housing project near the district’s North 40 fire station as primary reasons for the tax increase.
Without the extra revenue, he said the district might not be able to meet basic needs and could go into the red as soon as 2020. While the need for paid firefighters was mentioned during election season, it did not appear to be a central aspect of the tax campaign. The volunteer committee’s report on staffing the downtown and North 40 stations with full-time firefighters was completed a few months after the election.
Balentine said the district is moving forward on the affordable-housing project and has hired an architect, Stryker/Brown Architects PC of Aspen. Public outreach to gather input from residents of the North 40 and Aspen Business Center will begin in July.
“I committed to the North 40 and the ABC residents and others that we’re not going to fully bake something and come in there and say, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ We want their input,” the fire chief said.
Plans call for 18 units, a mix of one, two and three bedrooms. The firefighters living there will pay subsidized rental fees, similar in price to other affordable-housing offerings in the area.
In other department news, Balentine said Ken Josselyn, the department’s fleet and facility manager, will be moving to the new role of wildfire division manager. Aside from his duties pertaining to fleets and facilities, Josselyn serves as a firefighter and battalion chief. He also has been the department’s acting training officer.
“Our goal is to goal to expand our wildfire capabilities,” Balentine said. “We will be doing some public outreach to our citizens to let them know what the wildfire risk is in their neighborhoods. The outreach will involve some wildfire education as well.”
In addition to the downtown Aspen and North 40 stations, the Aspen fire district oversees three other stations. They are located in Woody Creek, Aspen Village and Starwood. The recently built Starwood station was funded by residents of that area.
Balentine said he is currently serving his 30th year with the Aspen fire department.
“We’ve expanded so much through the years. When I came on, we fought fires and went to car wrecks. That was about it. Now we do so much more, from swift water rescue to wildfires to safety inspections on properties. It’s really changed.”