By Deb Patterson
NORTH WEBSTER — A joint meeting between the Tippecanoe Township Advisory Board and North Webster Town Council this evening was not to make a proposal, but to share information toward a decision on if a fire territory is wanted or not. The end result of the meeting was a lot of information being shared, with more detailed information to be presented should there be a move toward a fire territory.
Approximately 24 people attended the meeting, including at least nine members of the North Webster/Tippecanoe Township Fire Department. Those from the general public attending were a mixture of town and township residents.
Chris Francis, township trustee, and Jeremy Likens, fire chief, presented the bulk of the information, along with Paige Sansone with Baker Tilly Municipal Advisors, Indianapolis. Sansone has worked with numerous government entities in forming fire territories, including Turkey Creek and Warsaw-Wayne fire territories.
Several main points were the town and township are at their maximum levies, meaning no additional funds can be raised and North Webster EMS has already exceeded the number of ambulance runs from last year, with two months remaining. The need for additional manpower, due to the lack of volunteer availability, was stressed with it noted several times, the days of a volunteer fire department are gone.
Sansone provided the information many wanted to hear. What is the price tag? Stressing everything is still in the preliminary stage, she noted as a fire territory, the department would be looking at a $2 million budget. That budget is now at $1.1 million. However, not all of the proposed $2 million budget would be through a tax levy, some funds would come from other sources.
Should a fire territory be formed an estimated 14 percent increase would be experienced on tax bills for those living in the unincorporated portion of the township. Those in the town limits would experience an 8 percent increase. Regardless of what area the taxpayer resides in, the actual dollar amount would be the same. Using a property value of $100,000, the increase would be $44 per year for a township or town resident.
“These are preliminary numbers,” she stressed, noting during an official public hearing more detailed information would be provided, including other revenue sources.
Sansone also went over the steps to take in the formation of a fire territory. To form a territory a petition would need to be filed by the town and township to the state noting the amount needed to adequately fund the territory. There would be three public hearings. These hearings would include the financial impact analysis and impact on the taxpayers.
Francis explained the two funds the township has that funds the fire department, each raising $250,000. One, the cumulative fire fund is used for major expenses such as equipment. The fire fund goes for operating expenses including payroll and health insurance. “I feel we need to keep our own ambulance service in town,” he said, noting the fire department and EMS personnel are top-notch.
It was pointed out all firefighters and EMS personnel are cross-trained but it needs to be figured out what it would take to retain and recruit personnel down the road. “Volunteers across the country is on a downward spiral,” he stated.
Likens, who has been fire chief since 2004 and a full-time fireman since 2012, presented not only a brief history of the department but of his experience in firefighting. His presentation began with the start of the fire department, roughly in 1935, as a bucket brigade. The department was all volunteer and those people lived and worked in town. The EMS was started roughly in 1978. It, too, was volunteer-based. Dick Mitchell, township trustee, had a vision and in 1996 the EMS became a paramedic service with three full-time employees. In 1998-99 three more were hired. That year alone the ambulance calls totaled 360.
Since then the availability of volunteers has dropped, as well as being able to respond. Many of the current volunteers have to travel outside of North Webster to work.
The fire department worked toward improving ISO ratings in 1998. It was rated the lowest possible at that time. By 2006, the 10/9 rating was raised to a 7. This meant some homeowners received a break in their insurance. Today the department is at a 6, mainly due to the fact the town has no water supply. This is in jeopardy of dropping not only because of the lack of water power in the town, but the decrease in volunteer response.
Time was given to those present to ask questions.
“We want to hear from you. It is easier to sit around as adults,” said Francis to the public. He admitted some of the numbers may be inflated and there is plenty of wiggle room.
“We have a phenomenal group of people,” Francis said, noting the township tries to reward them the best they can. Several residents present echoed his comment, noting that fact should not be forgotten during a discussion about the fire territory.
Jim Rhodes, township board president, stated he was amazed to see the turnout and was glad people could come and say what was on their minds. Ed Clayton, township board member, added “our job is to listen to you. We want the public to tell us what to do … we need to know what you think. We vote for what you want, not what we want.”
A packet was handed out providing a draft of the financial and tax impact analysis for a proposed fire territory.