By Deb Patterson
NORTH WEBSTER — Approval from both the Tippecanoe Township Advisory Board and the North Webster Town Council was needed Wednesday evening, March 17, to create the Tippecanoe Township Fire Territory.
The township board approved the formation with a 2-1 vote. The town’s approval died due to a lack of a second on a favorable motion.
Jim Rhodes, township advisory board member; Dan Thystrup and Dave Waliczek, town council members, were against it. Neither Thystrup nor Waliczek would second the motion made by Town Council President Lisa Strombeck to adopt the resolution needed by the town to form the territory.
“Unfortunately two individuals, representing approximately one-eighth of the population, made the determination for the entire township,” said Chris Francis, township trustee, following the meeting.
“I cannot thank the public enough for their input, both positive and negative; that is what our government is founded upon. The fire territory, which was presented as a potential solution, involved hundreds of hours of research. I look forward to hearing from the town council’s proposals for the future of our emergency services and welcome them with the spirit of diplomacy,” he said.
Firefighters and supporters of the territory’s formation appeared distraught, some even angry, at the outcome. Several questioned what had happened after the town closed its meeting as they could not hear. Marty Likens said the town council had agreed not to form the fire territory and “take away from the township. We can thank them for not having services.”
Halfway through the hearing that lasted almost 2 1/2 hours it was clear where Rhodes and Thystrup stood. But Waliczek’s apparent change of heart surprised everyone.
Rhodes presented a 10- to 15-minute speech following the presentation by Cody Manges, chief of operations; Chris Francis, township trustee; and Paige Sansone, with Baker Tiller. Fire Chief Jeremy Likens was not present due to being hospitalized earlier in the day. The presentation recapped information previously presented as well as showing the reduced impact on the tax rates moving the hiring of battalion chiefs out three years.
“I didn’t want it to come to this point,” Francis said. “There is no other option. We don’t have a choice here.”
He added, “The entire budget will be broke in three years … I don’t want anybody in my township waiting 25 minutes (for an ambulance) when they could have it in five minutes.” He said he cannot control what happens in Indianapolis or Washington, D.C., but can control what happens in the township.
He said they had not planned on what to do if the territory plan died. “We have no plan B,” he said, noting there are also no funds to pay for an outside ambulance service.
Rhodes, who became emotional and even angry at times, spoke his personal beliefs and touched on numerous topics, including the fact there is no guarantee there would always be an ambulance available in the township and the need to stop taking the ambulance out of the area.
“This is an emotional issue … toughest decision I’ve ever had to make and I don’t take it lightly.”
If the territory was formed, Likens said he would have to answer to three separate boards.
The fire territory board would be paid and have no legal power deciding how money was spent, he said.
“That seems like a waste of tax dollars to me. Township is good stewards of township people’s money, said fourth lowest tax rate in the county. Does that mean we have carte blanche to raise taxes? I don’t subscribe to that mindset and I never have,” Rhodes said.
It was clear Rhodes would not go for raising taxes 11 cents, but stated he would go for a couple of cents. While he noted he had the upmost respect for the emergency personnel – a matter that has “stuck in his crawl” – was the fact when it was agreed Likens would be hired full time, he would work to become a paramedic. “That hasn’t happened yet.”
“We can’t be all things to everyone. We never will be … if this is passed I feel we are biting the hand that feeds us,” Rhodes stated, adding when the fire territory was proposed 10 years ago he was against it.
“I still am to this day.” But he noted there may be differences of opinions yet people could still be friends. “We can agree to disagree, but I would rather be hated for what I stand for than loved for what I’m not.”
Thystrup compared what was occurring to socialism and what he had fled from 30 years ago. “This happened in Denmark,” he stated regarding the increased prices and people having to work harder and longer to make ends meet. He called the proposal a “band-aid” and a short term fix. “Get out of the box,” he stated. “You’re being stupid guys,” he added.
He indicated people were coming to the area because it is cheaper and better than other places. “We’re ruining that. I’ve lived what we’re doing to ourselves. That’s why I came here. I see it much clearer than others … know what I know cause I lived it … it scares the hell out of me and people can’t see that. We need to think out of the box to make happen what we want to happen.”
Waliczek, who said very little, appeared to be looking at Jim Smith, advisory board president when he stated “I see both sides of it. Jim hit it on the head. I agree 100 percent.”
Advisory board members Ed Clayton and Smith, along with Strombeck, all spoke favorably for the proposal. Even Betsy Luce, clerk-treasurer, spoke up noting she understood the finances and emotions involved. All noted they did not want to see the services dropped. Clayton further stated he did not think the formation would be as big as a tax burden as believed, as the assessed valuation is increasing each year, lowering the impact and there were other taxes that would offset higher tax rates. All three noted the need to keep the emergency services they have in the community and not outsourced.
During the public’s opportunity to speak, Marty Likens, Phil Payne, Tom Nelson, Brian Dawes, Max Deatsman and Tom Reiff were among the handful who provided comments and asked questions. Many spoke in favor of the proposal noting you could not put a price on someone’s life. Dawes, however, appeared to cause unrest in a meeting that had been respectful of all present.
“You say you’re going to keep everybody safe. Quit lying,” stated Dawes. He noted seeking $1 million (in a budget) is not a good use of money and questioned if creative solutions had been asked to be presented. “Tell me you don’t have to have two other ways to solve this scenario,” he said, arguing there had never been an opportunity or request to bring other ideas to the table.
Dawes and Nelson both noted the township bypassed the summer residents due to not notifying them of the meetings and the timing of the meetings. Both noted the proposal was “assumed it was something you need to do without checking other options. You neglected to look at options available to you,” was one comment made.
During the public discussion, it was noted the problem needed to be addressed county-wide and with the fire association to put their heads together to address the situation. It was also noted numerous times the proposed budget was to achieve a maximum levy, with no intention of ever reaching that plateau.
Reiff, former fireman and trustee, noted he is all for the ambulance and fire service. “I’d like to have six (ambulances) … none of us can guarantee we’ll always have an ambulance,” but he questioned the money and why 15 cents was needed when 1 cent raises $75,000, yet $525,000 was being asked and not that much was spent in payroll last year. Mickey Scott, chief of Turkey Creek Fire Territory and Mike Wilson, chief of Warsaw-Wayne Fire Territory, both noted neither department has utilized their maximum levies.
One resident, who has worked in the insurance area, noted the savings in insurance premiums offsets the proposed tax increase. He also noted should the department go back to a higher rating, some insurance companies would leave and not provide insurance to residents.
Town council members left immediately following the meeting, while groups of people milled around, including a large contingency of firefighters wondering what would happen next.