PIERCETON — The idea of creating a fire territory in southeast Kosciusko County is moving forward, but with one less township and a level of uncertainty.
A small group of residents joined Pierceton Town Council members and representatives of Washington and Monroe townships Thursday night, Nov. 21, to discuss the need to form a fire territory.
The original fire territory plan discussed earlier this year called for Washington, Monroe and Jackson Townships to form a fire territory with Pierceton Fire Department, which is made up of volunteers.
Representatives of Jackson informed officials recently that they were opting out of talks.
Officials seemed to downplay the loss of Jackson, which is in the far southeast corner of Kosciusko County and south of Monroe Township.
Tentatively, the district would operate on about a $500,000 budget and would pay for two firefighters to be on duty 12 hours a day seven days a week.
Preliminary figures contained in the analysis – updated to exclude Jackson Township – estimates the creation of a fire territory would lead to a tax hike of 10.5% for Pierceton property owners; 11.2% increase for Washington Township property owners and a 13.8% hike for property owners in Monroe Township.
Fire Chief Gordon Baker said the loss of Jackson in the equation resulted in the rate of increases rising several percentage points.
The meeting quickly turned momentarily terse when town council member Mandy Espinoza complained that he had received a copy of an analysis of the consolidation plan days ago when it had apparently been available for weeks.
At one point, Espinoza questioned whether somebody didn’t want him to have a copy.
Town Council President Matt Brubaker said he thought Espinoza had received a copy.
Baker apologized for the confusion and suggested they start sharing information on a Google doc and notify everyone when there are updates.
After more discussion about the need for more details, Espinoza and anther town council member, Tom Barker, stepped aside before returning to the meeting and announcing they were not ready to commit to anything.
Baker, the fire chief, said it was not his intention to seek an agreement or a dedication of funds Thursday night.
Espinoza clarified that they were not opposed to the fire territory but need more information.
One overwhelming theme heard Thursday night was a desire for more information.
Annie Espinoza, who is married to Councilman Espinoza, mentioned more than once that more details are needed and even suggested the issue be put on a referendum.
Baker said doing a referendum next year would delay the project.
At times, it appeared the leaders were unsure of what to do next. Eventually, they agreed that representatives of the town and townships meet on Jan. 23 to continue talks.
There was also a consensus of agreement that they seek out some financial support from major employers in the area to help cover the cost of an impact study by a consultant, which could cost as much as $20,000.
Officials from the town and townships plan to endorse letters to the businesses appealing for support.
Washington Township Trustee is Dean Rhoades expressed a willingness by the township to provide some money for the study.
There was also a sense of agreement to look at all options, even the idea of trying to merge with fire territories in Warsaw and North Webster.
Among those attending was Kim Cates, a Kosciusko County Council member who also is involved with the county economic development office, KEDCo.
Cates was closely involved in the establishment of the Turkey Creek Fire Territory in Syracuse.
She provided insights into the challenges the town and townships might face as they attempt to choose representatives for a fire territory board if plans reach that point.
She also spoke of the need to provide good details. Ultimately, residents need to weigh the benefits versus the cost, she said.
The desire to establish a fire territory is part of a national trend in some rural areas of the country because of the increasing struggle to recruit and retain volunteers.
Baker said its difficult to maintain quality coverage with volunteers.
“There are times when it’s hard to get a truck out the door,” Baker said.
But there is also a sense of resignation that establishing a fire territory is inevitable.
“I do believe this is something coming down the pike,” Mandy Espinoza said, adding, though, that he wants to hear from constituents about the topic.
Another round of discussions on