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Politics and Government

Colorado’s tiny fire, metro and other districts control billions of dollars with little voter input

More than 2,000 local elections were canceled in Colorado in 2018. In one district, hundreds of thousands of dollars were embezzled before anyone noticed.

Firefighters from Inter-Canyon Fire Protection District train on how to respond to car fires, on Oct. 24, 2019. (Provided by Inter-Canyon Fire Protection District)
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In December 2012, the board of the Inter-Canyon Fire Protection District, in Jefferson County, was astonished to hear it had run out of money to fight fires.

There was no money, either, to continue its job as the first medical responder to crashes on U.S. 285 in the Denver foothills. The district was broke.

Eventually, the board learned it had been oblivious for three years while the volunteer fire chief, Dave MacBean, embezzled $643,000 — in a district with a $900,000 annual budget. MacBean was later convicted of theft and embezzlement and sentenced to eight years in prison.

In an interview with the Canyon Courier in 2014, though, MacBean said he wasn’t solely to blame.

“(The board) did not request receipts as part of the accounting process,” MacBean told the newspaper. “There was a lack of checks and balances.”

Voters later ousted the board chairman at the time, Mike Reddy. But Reddy was re-appointed to the board last month. And another member who sat on the board throughout the scandal is still there, perhaps because voters have never had a chance to vote on his retention since the scandal. That means two of the five directors who failed to pay attention are making financial decisions for the district once again.

The story highlights a frequent problem when it comes to Colorado’s numerous special districts, which hold their board elections in May. 

Board members who oversee special districts in Colorado make decisions on how to spend billions of dollars in taxpayer funds. But voters didn’t have a say in the most recent elections on 90% of the 2,310 contests, according to numbers provided to The Sun by the state Department of Local Affairs.

The districts provide public services ranging from the paramedic saving your life at a highway crash to the clean water coming from your tap.

Colorado law requires that districts post legal ads in local weekly newspapers asking for candidates. If no one new signs up to challenge the current office-holders, the elections are canceled and incumbents extend their terms.

It’s all perfectly legal, state officials say.

The districts “do what the law requires,” which is just the legal ads, said Joe McConnell, the election group program manager at the state Department of Local Affairs.

But the lack of voter oversight can have tremendous consequences for Colorado’s metro, fire, park, ambulance, health, water and sanitation districts — as the case of the Inter-Canyon board shows.

Prosecutors said MacBean’s embezzlement began in early 2010, but it wasn’t discovered until after that December 2012 meeting when the Inter-Canyon board learned it was out of money and members began to investigate.

Prior to that, board members had not been checking credit card receipts, according to interviews and stories published by the Canyon Courier. No one noticed the purchase of thousands of dollars in guns and guitars. They didn’t read auditor’s reports with three years of warnings that the district’s reserves were rapidly disappearing. They repeatedly overspent their planned budget.

All five of those board members were in office due to elections that were canceled for lack of candidates in 2010 and 2012.

Board members preside over a meeting of the Inter-Canyon Fire Protection District board. From left to right: Karl Firor, district administrator Kelley Wood, Mike Reddy, Mike Swenson, Ralph Dreher, Kerry Prielipp. (Ann Imse, Special to The Colorado Sun)

After the embezzlement, voters did oust the board chairman, Reddy, in the next election in 2014. But board member Ralph Dreher hasn’t been challenged in an election since the scandal. He remained in office when the 2016 election was canceled.  

And as of November, Reddy is back — reappointed to the fire department board by Dreher and more recent members.

Reddy declined to comment.

Dreher said he voted to reappoint Reddy because, “I was told he had experience, and experience is what’s needed.” 

Dreher and Reddy served on the board together for at least four years during the period of financial disaster. Dreher declined to comment further about why he picked Reddy despite the past troubles.

In 2018, its most recent election, Inter-Canyon’s sole public request for candidates was a required, one-column legal ad in the local weekly newspaper that ran Feb. 14. Voters had just over two weeks to respond, and, when no one but the incumbents signed up to run, the election was canceled for lack of candidates. The incumbents stayed.

The district, which covers a heavily wooded area of 52 square miles in the Jefferson County foothills, has an active website and social media pages, which it uses to warn residents if a wildfire is threatening or share other district news. But the ICPFD did not post a notice seeking board candidates in 2018 on either its website, Facebook page, Twitter feed or through email alerts.

Battalion Chief Dan Hatlestad said Facebook and Twitter are used only for operational communications, while the website is used for board information, “for a consistent approach.” 

However, district administrator Kelley Wood said the website has never posted a call for candidates. But she favors changing that. “We should have it on the website for this next election,” said Wood, whose job requires her to handle office work and website maintenance for the district.

When the seat opened that Reddy was given late last year, the district did nothing to publicize it at all — not on its website, its Twitter feed, its Facebook page or its email news alerts. 

“We’ve had feelers go out to constituents,” but only two or three people were willing, said board member Karl Firor, who joined the board after the embezzlement was discovered. He voted to restore Reddy to the board because Reddy is a retired professional firefighter, and “he’s actually got real live experience in the fire world.”

The timing of special district board elections likely plays a role in the lack of voter participation. About 2,900 people in the district voted in the November 2018 election — a mail-ballot election — when the district successfully passed a measure to raise its mill levy. In contrast, only 66 voted — in person — in the district’s last director election in May 2014. 

“It’d be nice to see the same 2,900 people vote when we have an election” for directors, Firor said. “That’d be great.”

Firor, an accountant, said he and other board members now check receipts and financial statements. 

Mike Swenson, who was appointed to the board in 2018, also said the district now has strong financial procedures. He cited Reddy’s fire experience for his vote to appoint him. Swenson didn’t know that openings weren’t posted on the website. But he said the board could consider using other social media in the future.

Across the state, there were similar tales of canceled elections for lack of candidates in 183 of the 234 fire districts — even though those boards spent more than $200 million of taxpayer funds, according to data provided by Scott Olene, the director of local government services at the Department of Local Affairs.

Voters cast their ballots at downtown Denver’s Bannock Street polling location on Election Day, Nov. 5, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Many of the canceled elections were in metro districts set up by developers, and burdened with debt before residents moved in and became voters. The Denver Post recently reported extensive problems with some metro districts, including neighborhoods stuck with high property taxes to pay for construction of roads and utilities. 

DOLA does not have a database tracking whether other districts have turnout as bad as Inter-Canyon’s 3% in the last director election in 2014.  

Special districts are required by state law to have their director elections in May instead of November, McConnell, the DOLA elections expert, said. Except for unusually high-profile contests, May elections typically see much lower voter turnout than November general elections.

The districts can opt to conduct the election via mail ballots and make more extensive public notice, he said.

But a shortage of candidates can be a problem for cities, towns and school districts as well, McConnell said. “Parker even canceled an election,” he added. 

Colorado has more than 4,000 government districts — a figure that includes independent districts such as Inter-Canyon but also other types of districts that report to cities, counties or appointed boards, such as library or business improvement districts.

Collecting data from numerous reports from each of these local government entities is a time-consuming job.

“There are so many districts,” Olene said, “and so few of us.”

How to learn more about special districts
If you want to know which special districts are in your area, there’s a map at this link with various layers for metro, fire and other districts.

You can find more information about the districts by clicking on them in the map and then clicking the “More Information: DOLA Website” link.

Or, you can look up your districts at dola.colorado.gov/lgis/ and find election and financial reports.

If you would like to step up and be a candidate in a local election, the deadline for self-nominations is Feb. 28 for the May 5 elections this year.


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