2010-03-13 / News

Walnut Township kicks off fire department discussion

By Charles Prince

MILLERSPORT – Nearly 100 people turned out last Thursday evening for a meeting on the possible consolidation of fire departments and resources in Walnut Township.

Newly elected Walnut Township Trustee Terry Horn organized the two-hour meeting. Mayors from the Villages of Buckeye Lake, Millersport, Pleasantville and Thurston were invited along with the chiefs of the Buckeye Lake, Millersport and Thurston- Walnut Township fire department. Three of the four mayors were present as were all three fire chiefs. Trustees Sonny Dupler and Ralph Zollinger joined Horn at the meeting. Two representatives from Fairfield Beach Property Owners Association – Bob Ball and Danny Phillips – also participated.

Walnut Township Fire Ombudsman Billy Phillips moderated the meeting. The immediate objective is to “gather information,” he emphasized. Phillips outlined the three options for providing fire/EMS services:

• Contract. Walnut Township currently contracts with the Village of Millersport to provide 24/7 on-station staffing at both the Fairfield Beach and Millersport fire stations.

• Joint fire district.

• Township fire department. Walnut Township owns 50 percent of the Thurston-Walnut Township Fire Department.

Most of the initial discussion focused on a joint fire district. Larry Flowers, Township Administrator for Madison Township (Franklin County) and former state representative, had been invited to share his experiences with fire districts. He explained that a fire district becomes a separate governmental entity. Each of the participating political subdivisions – townships and villages – selects an elected official to serve on the fire district board. Those members can then create as many at large slots on the board as desired.

For example, the nearby Basil Joint Fire District, serving Baltimore and Liberty Township, has five members – a Baltimore Village Council member, an atlarge member selected by the Village of Baltimore, a Liberty Township Trustee, an at-large member selected by trustees and an at-large member selected by the four other board members. While unincorporated Fairfield Beach would not have one of the initial seats on the district board that board make provisions for a representative from that area.

The issue of cost quickly came up. Flowers said cost depends on the level of service provided by the district, not on how the fire department is organized.

With a joint fire district, each political subdivision is represented on the board but none are able to control it on their own.

A township fire department is completely controlled by township trustees, Flowers said. A township fire department could contract with another department to actually provide the services.

“We can’t continue the status quo,” Flowers said. He started his fire service career as a volunteer at Kirkersville, then Baltimore and retired after 30 years fire service, spending the last 22 years as chief of the Madison Township Fire Department. He also served eight years in the state legislature serving as Majority Leader before being forced out by term limits.

“The next state budget is going to be a train wreck,” he added. “There will be no state funds for local government. We may need to restructure government.” He pointed out that last summer’s biennial state budget was only balanced after using $7-9 billion in one-time federal stimulus funds. That money won’t be available in 2011.

Flowers said the easiest thing to do is to have a township fire department. There are many such departments around the state. “Trustees lead it; they don’t manage it,” he explained. “They hire a fire chief to run it.” A couple of years ago, Granville Township replaced a private, volunteer-based department with a townshipowned department that is run by a professional fire chief. Licking Township has a township-owned fire company run by a professional chief and staffed primarily by volunteers.

“The trend in Ohio is to do joint fire districts,” he said. It is difficult for fire departments operating one to two stations to be efficient. With a district, “you can have less chiefs and more Indians,” Flowers said. “The Indians are where you get the work done.” Along with reduced administrative costs, there are economies of scales in purchasing and training.

“You’ve got to think beyond today,” Flowers said. “Prepare for tomorrow. It could create financial stability down the road.”

Several people commented that Walnut Township considered a joint district twice with trustees rejecting the recommendations to create a district. Dupler said the last recommendation was rejected because the cost for a professional fire chief would have taken about 20 percent of the then available funds. At that time, the township was collecting three mills on five-year levies for fire/EMS services. Now the township has six permanent mills that will raise about $948,000 this year.

As the meeting wound down, Horn asked how many present wanted to further investigate options. Most of the crowd favored continuing with the notable exception of those representing the Village of Thurston and members of its fire department present.

“Please hold us accountable,” Horn said. “Come to trustees’ meetings; call us.”

Each village participating had an opportunity to comment. Millersport Council President Dave Levacy, representing

accountable’

Mayor Dean Severance, said the village favored a joint district to end the animosity. Thurston Council member Jimmy Barber believes the answer is for the two departments to work better together.

The Village of Pleasantville is in two townships. The northern portion in Walnut Township is now served by Thurston-Walnut Township Fire Department. “We’re very happy with Thurston’s service,” Mayor Jack Weidner said. Buckeye Lake Mayor Rick Baker said, “I’m still gathering information.” He asked, “What control will my community lose?”

Dupler commented for the trustees. “We still feel it (a district) will cost the taxpayer at least two more mills,” he said. Though Phillips had told participants to be positive, Dupler took a shot at Millersport, once again claiming the department isn’t efficient. He also claimed he wants feedback from residents.

Horn challenged Dupler on his premium cost claim. “I’m not sure where the extra two mills come from,” he said. “I’ve not been part of that discussion. The myth is that one or the other will cost more.”

Fairfield Beach representative Danny Phillips said, “We just got 24/7 at Fairfield Beach. I don’t want to lose that.”

“Use all your public forums to talk about this,” Flowers suggested. “That will keep the discussion alive.”

Phillips summarized comments for trustees at their meeting Tuesday night. Horn told The Beacon that trustees didn’t discuss any specific next steps to be taken as a township.

“Personally, I am digesting everything that was discussed and look forward to more dialogue,” he added.

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