Fire Board wants input

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Maybe Fire Department officials didn't advertise well enough their plea for needed funds. Possibly, people didn't understand the wording of the department's mill levy request on last November's ballot.

Whatever the case, voters turned down by 56 percent a proposed mill levy increase for the Craig Rural Fire Protection District and board members want to know why. A public forum is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. today at the Craig fire station to try to collect public input, said Fire Board member John Whinery.

"We're kind of curious to see what the pulse of the community wants," he said. "That would be nice to have people who voted no at least tell us why. Maybe that would give understanding on how to correct it and try to get an overall consensus of what the community wants."

Fire officials most recently requested a $150,000-a-year budget increase to slowly replace an aging fleet of emergency vehicles and other equipment. If passed, residential property owners would have seen an increase of about $6 a year for a home assessed at $110,000.

The funds were needed to replace two water trucks and two brush-fire fighting trucks, upgrade the radio system, purchase protective equipment and fix the station's leaky roof. The needed improvements along with a steady decrease in revenues during past decade had lowered the department's operating budget by $120,000 a year, board members said.

Fire officials have the option to propose another mill levy increase in a special election next November or in May 2006.

But before planning their next move, fire officials are seeking guidance from the public.

In the wake of the district's failed proposal, some community members have donated to a fund to show support for the fire department. It has earned about $1,000, said Board member Byron Willems.

Others have wanted to give the department their $6-a-year contributions in lieu of the failed tax, but Willems said that the gesture from 10,000 residents still would not enough for the department to purchase one new vehicle, which can cost $200,000. A drop in the department's rating because of its aging equipment might cost taxpayers more in the long run when residential fire insurance rates go up, Willems said.

"The longer we go, the worse it will get," he said about the department's equipment. "Everything will age a little bit more. It's like the old saying, 'Pay me now or pay me later.'"

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