By Deb Patterson
NORTH WEBSTER — It was standing room only at the second public hearing Wednesday, Feb. 24, on the proposed formation of the North Webster-Tippecanoe Township Fire Protection Territory. The hearing, held at the township building, provided new and updated information, especially on the financial impact.
Tippecanoe Township Trustee Chris Francis, Paige Sansone with Baker Tilly, and Fire Chief Jeremy Likens gave the presentations. All members of the township advisory board and North Webster Town Council were present. During the question and answer time, eight individuals took the opportunity to get clarification, make suggestions, or voice concerns on the financial impact.
Scott Fox asked for clarification on who would be responsible for personnel if a territory is formed and how the EMS played into the territory as the statute did not mention EMS services. Andrew Grossnickle, attorney, stated the plan was to form a territory board working with the township board and town council. Sansone noted the EMS falls under the third reason in the statute for creating a fire territory and was verified by the Department of Local Government Finance.
Walt Runyan encouraged Francis and the fire department to send out letters to every resident of the township explaining the proposal and reasons for feedback. Time frame constraints and information has been made public through the newspapers and social media. A local realtor noted such a mailing would be time consuming as it took her two days using the county mapping system to gather addresses around Sechrist Lake.
A retired school teacher and veteran who resides on Irish Lake stated while he appreciates what the fire department does, he questioned if the proposed tax increase rate needed to be that high and what was it all for. “I’m not against it, you just need to keep it down as much as you can,” he said.
Ed Clayton, township board member, noted it was all for manpower.
Other questions focused on how many other fire territories were in the county (Turkey Creek and Warsaw-Wayne), if future employees had already been chosen, assessed valuation and training requirements. One resident said, “I don’t think money is the issue, it is dividing (the tax rate) equally to pay the same on both sides.”
Sansone reviewed the who, what and why of a fire territory, the formation process, proposed service area and proposed financial information. It was noted figures presented at the Feb. 10 hearing represent the maximum property tax levy for the operating fund. Requesting a lesser levy would not allow future increases should there be a shortfall of funds without going through public hearings. She provided a 38-page handout, a portion can be viewed here.
The actual proposed fire territory operating budget showed an estimated tax liability impact in 2022 at 11.3 percent for Tippecanoe Township residents for an estimated rate of $1.1126 and a 6.9 percent impact for those residing in the town limits for an estimated rate of $1.7602. Looking ahead, those impacts would be 2.6 percent or a rate of $1.1413 and 1.6 percent or rate of $1.7889 in 2023 and .4 percent or rate of $1.1456 and .2 percent or rate of $1.7832 in 2024. This operating budget proposes full staffing in 2022 – six firefighter/paramedics, six firefighter/EMTs and a fire chief. The budget proposes the addition of three battalion chiefs in 2023 and one firefighter/EMT in 2024. These estimated district tax rates in 2022 would be less the current township fire rates of $.0717 for the township and less $.0717 for town residents.
Sansone’s presentation also included estimated funding requirements, revenues and property tax rates, comparison of receipts and disbursements for fire services, actual and estimated property tax rates for fire services, estimated district rate impact for the next three years and property tax liability impact. She also presented information on the impact on local government revenues including property tax caps, circuit breaker tax credits, local income tax and other taxes.
Francis touched on the definitions of information, disinformation and misinformation, and went over basic information. He said a person residing within the town limits would not be double-taxed. He also pointed out the reason for holding the hearings at this time of the year is because the state dictates a resolution to form a fire territory must be done after Jan. 1 but before April 1.
He provided information on the township, its organization, mileage, population, housing units, parcels and median owner-occupied housing unit value. He also clarified the merger of the EMS and fire and provided the issues for emergency services.
Francis pointed out the budget shortfall, national downturn in volunteerism and availability, budget constraints due to the tax levy, pay and retention of professionally trained staff and associated costs, dependence on high call volume of neighboring agencies for supplemental coverage, staff of a second ambulance and a reduction of $30,000 from the town for fire assistance.
“I want to make sure this is here,” Francis noted about providing emergency services, pointing out taxes are the reason behind the financial shortfalls. He noted “I’m cheap,” adding as trustee, the bills are paid on time. “We don’t sit on debt anymore in the township.”
“If this does not happen and we don’t address the staffing … threat to the health and safety of the township. I don’t like standing and waiting for an ambulance from the outside. I want to provide the best service we can give right here.”
Likens also addressed the current challenges and goals and noted there used to be a waiting list to join the department, which had a very strong volunteer base. Now, because of required training, it takes one full year to obtain the training needed and many do not have that free time. He also noted even with 26 volunteers on the roster, there have been calls where one volunteer shows up. “That’s a big problem … I’m not blaming volunteers for this.”
He noted the need for staffing a second ambulance, which is sitting at the station. “We have nothing to back us up,” Likens said, adding if a second ambulance is needed the department relies on Turkey Creek and Lutheran to cover. “These are two busy ambulance services. If both of them are out, there is nobody else to back me up for you as taxpayers. That’s why we’re looking to staff a second ambulance.”
He pointed out to contract a private ambulance service, the cost would be $650,000, and none of those services want to do it. Doing this would also mean the potential of not having an ambulance in the community with no local control on how they respond to emergencies. “As taxpayers, I have a hard time believing we would want something like this,” said Likens.
“Our goal is to provide the best possible EMS and fire service to the town of North Webster and Tippecanoe Township. Our ultimate goal is to staff four people 24/7 who are cross-trained in fire and EMS and have both ambulances available,” said Likens. He also addressed the need for full-time battalion chiefs and the need for competitive pay for full-time members. The average for a full time firefighter/EMT is $47,000-$50,000 a year and paramedics are $55,000 to $60,000. The local department is way below those figures.
Additionally Likens provided some call run numbers and touched on the ISO rating of the department, which is expected to drop to a 7 due to the lack of volunteer availability.
The final public hearing on the proposal will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 17, in the township office. Following the final public hearing, the town council and township board will vote to adopt, reject or table the establishment of the fire territory.