For the first time in recent memory, there is a contested election for seats on the board of the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District.
On Tuesday evening, four of the candidates - two incumbents and two challengers - attended an informal candidate forum at the Bayfield Lions Club attended by about two dozen people. The candidates agreed on several issues, including the need to increase employee pay and focus on long-range financial planning.
In 2013, district voters narrowly approved a $1.6 million mill levy to boost the district's coffers after reduced oil and gas property tax revenues hit the department's budgets hard. The district didn't replace employees who retired or moved on, sold its ladder truck, and used part of its reserves to stay afloat. All of the candidates said better long-term fiscal management is required.
The following is information the candidates submitted to the fire district or discussed at the Tuesday forum:
Casey Cook is a captain in Upper Pine and has volunteered there since 2002. A mechanic, he works for BP managing its fleet of trucks and previously owned his own garage. Having watched Upper Pine grow from mostly volunteers to a department of mostly paid staff, Cook said he has seen change in the department and wants to be a new voice on the board.
Bill Faust was ill and did not attend on Tuesday but in a short biography wrote he is a rancher and pastor of the Community of Christ church. He was a member of the Bayfield School Board from 2004 to 2012 and has volunteered with the school district since 1981. He's been a member and leader of Boy Scouts for 48 years.
Incumbent Bill Kourim is a U.S. Navy veteran who has worked for the Henderson and Clark County fire departments in Nevada as an engineer, captain and assistant chief. He also has worked for the Nevada Division of Forestry, BLM and U.S. Forest Service managing wildland fires. He is certified by the National Fire Academy as an incident management team leader. He has served on the Upper Pine board since 2008 when he was appointed to fill a seat.
Roger Pennington, another incumbent, is running for his fourth term on the board. He is a retired port of entry officer for the State of Colorado and now works for U.S. Airways. He is a snowmobiler who volunteers his time grooming area trails and has won several awards for his volunteerism from snowmobile organizations.
Wayne Walters has been president of Uni-Staff Services since 1995 and has worked in business administration and management since 1964. He has volunteered for Upper Pine since 2007 and was voted "Volunteer of the Year" in January by the Colorado Department of Homeland Security's Division of Emergency Management. He is also a coordinator for the state public health department.
Both Cook and Walters touted their business experience. They have managed budgets of $18 million or more, an amount they said is comparable to Upper Pine's budget.
Walters said he wouldn't approve capital expenditures for the department unless they meet his goals of financial accountability, discipline and sustainability.
Pennington said his experience on the board since 2002 is valuable, especially during the Missionary Ridge fire, "when I had to learn in a hurry." Upper Pine's insurance service organization (ISO) ratings on firefighting abilities and preparation have improved, resulting in lower insurance premiums for Upper Pine residents, he said.
Kourim cited his experience as both a board member and professional firefighter, saying Upper Pine can't be a group of "good ol' boys" anymore, but has to focus on safety, budgets and fiscal management.
In a telephone interview with the Times, Faust said he would like to bring his experience as a school board member to the fire board.
Not being a current board member or volunteer, "I'm the only candidate kind of 'outside the fraternity,' and I might provide a different perspective," Faust said.
While he said he would support providing more pay for employees, he knows sometimes public taxing agencies don't have the money to do so.
Like the school district, the fire district might have to ask for a permanent tax increase to pay for the services that people want, Faust said.
At the candidate forum, candidates discussed the lengthening wildland fire season and the challenge as the district moves from fewer fire calls to more medical calls.
About 80 percent of the district's calls are medical, Kourim said. He said the board will need to help decide whether the district continues training volunteers, which are dwindling in number, or hire more employees.
One attendee asked how the district should deal with more people moving into wooded areas that are more prone to catch fire.
Cook said a lot of the district's calls are to deal with landowners burning ditches, or when controlled burns get out of control, "and it's your tax money" paying for that. He thinks more regulations regarding these burns are coming.
Pennington said the fire department needs to work more closely with the county commission to make sure subdivisions have two entrances.
Walters said as La Plata County grows, a lot of that population will move eastward.
"We'll have more people, more fires, and more medical calls," he said. He also said he thinks mandatory fuel mitigation is coming soon for many landowners.
Kourim said the district needs to focus on fuel reduction programs instead of reacting to fires after they've started, "when it's too late."
The Firefighters Association of Bayfield interviewed all of the candidates and endorses Cook and Walters. Their recommendation is in a letter to the editor on Page 2.
Elections will be held from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the district's administration building on Sower Drive and at Station 4 on the north end of Vallecito. Five candidates are running for two seats. In 2016, three seats will be up for election. Terms are for four years.