Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario is blasting a state fire fund used to help counties handle massive wildfires, saying the state is excessively billing counties to help balance Colorado State University’s budget.
Making comparisons to the Boston Tea Party, Vallario said he is “taking action” against the policy with the support of the County Sheriffs of Colorado and the state Fire Chiefs Association.
“Not only is this sum an excessive amount to charge the county, but equally important is the fact that this fee is being imposed on us without any representation; exactly the reason that caused the Colonists to act,” Vallario said in the latest edition of Just the Facts, a periodic newsletter he emails and posts on his Web site to explain his position on various topics.
He described a three-prong “negotiate, legislate or litigate” approach in an effort to arrive at a what he called a “more reasonable administrative approach.”
The state maintains a wild land firefighting fund to serve as a sort of insurance policy to assist local agencies in the event of large wildfires that could exceed their ability to cover the costs. A fire agency, like a smokejumper crew, that responds to a local fire, submits a bill to the Colorado State Forest Service, which passes the bill on to CSU, which oversees the state Forest Service.
The bill comes with a 23 percent administrative fee. Vallario accuses CSU of using that money to help balance its books. Last year, he said, CSU reaped $604,900 from the assessment on wild land fire invoices, even though it was a relatively light fire year.
Vallario complains the fee was set up between CSU and the federal Department of Health and Human Services without any Garfield County representatives present.
“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,” Vallario wrote.
CSU officials deny the money is being used to pay for other programs, but instead cover indirect costs associated with the university overseeing the state forest service.
“There are real costs associated with the forest service carrying out activities on our campus and in support of the work that they do,” said Bill Farland, vice president for research at CSU. “Any of the kinds of indirect costs that deal with payroll, accounts payable, purchasing, training are real costs to us.”
The fees are nothing new. The rate was set six years ago with Health and Human Services and is not limited to the fire fund. Any off-campus program working with CSU pays the same rate. On-campus programs pay a 47 percent fee.
The rate is similar to those set for surrounding states and other agencies to cover indirect costs. The University of Nebraska and Texas A&M each charge more, at 26 percent. The Colorado Department of Natural Resources charges 27.5 percent.
Those charging less include the Colorado Division of Fire Safety, at 21 percent. The University of California-Berkeley charges 19 percent. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management each charge up to 20 percent.
“These are the indirect cost of the Colorado State Forest Service doing its business at Colorado State,” Farland said. “These are the costs that basically allow them to do the work. We are paying for the payroll of the Colorado State Forest Service employees. We are providing accounts payable for individuals to work with the Forest Service so that they can administer grants and contracts. We do purchasing and training for them. These are all costs of doing business. Somebody has to pay for those.”
Critics say the cost is exorbitant, though, for some minimal bill processing.
“It’s proportionately way out of whack,” said Don Christensen, executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, which represents the state’s 64 sheriffs.
“We’ll be happy to take it over and perform the same services for a heck of a lot less money,” Christensen said.
By an earlier agreement, the state Forest Service was supposed to set the costs in cooperation with individual counties, he said, but that’s not happening. If the costs don’t come down, he said, individual counties may be left with no other choice than to leave the bills unpaid.
“If it’s an exorbitant, unreasonable amount of money, just don’t pay the bill,” he said. That’s the final vote.”