By David Hazledine
NORTH WEBSTER — Members of North Webster Town Council, Tippecanoe Township Advisory Board and North Webster-Tippecanoe Volunteer Fire Department met Thursday afternoon, Jan. 28, to review the proposed North Webster Tippecanoe Township Fire Protection Territory budget.
Many present agreed on the importance of high turnout to the three upcoming public hearings on the fire territory, the first of which is scheduled for 7 p.m., Feb. 10, at the township office, 102 S. Morton St., North Webster.
“I’d like everybody in town to be there,” said town council member Dan Thystrup. Township Trustee Chris Francis noted many property owners live outside of town who “pay for a good portion and don’t have a voice when we vote.”
Township Attorney Andrew Grossnickle added they had gone “above and beyond what is required statutorily to make sure as many as possible have the opportunity to be notified.”
The proposed 2022 territory budget is $2,287,776, including $275,076 for equipment replacement. The proposed property tax levy total is $1,797,961, with $1,628,953 coming from Tippecanoe Township and $169,008 from the town of North Webster.
According to preliminary numbers given at a public meeting in October, the increase in taxes would be roughly 14% for an unincorporated homestead and 8% for one in town.
Francis kicked off the discussion with a reference to the 2020 cumulative fire budget. “We were as frugal as we could be and we still burned it down,” he said, in spite of maximizing tax levies. “There is no additional avenue of funding,” he later added. “To maintain what we have had we have to do something.”
Total calls are trending roughly 100 more than the previous year while volunteer numbers are falling. Also, according to township board member Ed Clayton, the fire department is protecting “billions of dollars worth of assets,” which are predicted to keep increasing by as much as 25% in coming years.
The department is also unable to offer competitive wages to attract EMTs and paramedics and Likens added he currently has no one else “stepping up to the plate” to replace him as chief.
To get a “realistic” budget for hiring new personnel, Likens reached out to surrounding departments. “Our pay is below what other departments are paying,” he said of his projected salary budget, but still “as close as I can to be competitive.”
In response to township board member James Smith’s query as to whether they could guarantee always having an ambulance on-call in town if service was outsourced, Francis, who is a deputy with the Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Office answered, “Absolutely not … I’ve waited 30 minutes for an ambulance.”
As attendees looked over proposed budget details, Likens emphasized he was envisioning not just the next “one, two, three years” but the remainder of his time heading the department. “No one knows what the next 10 years will bring,” he said, adding it is important “we don’t shortchange ourselves,” a mistake made by other territories, which got into financial trouble by not asking for enough money during the permit process.
Members are still seeking clarification on whether or not the territory will need an executive board composed of members elected from the township board and town council. According to Francis, Baker Tilly accountant Paige Sansone had indicated it was not necessary; However, Grossnickle’s research turned up a statute showing otherwise.
Both Likens and Francis noted the lack of negative feedback they have received so far on the proposal in spite of the tax hike. “When they dial 911 they want us there. They want the service.”
A copy of the proposed ordinance, resolution and interlocal agreements will be made available at the public hearings. Anyone seeking additional information may contact Clerk-Treasurer Betsy Luce, (574) 834-7894 or Francis at (574) 834-1171.