2010-10-02 / News

Dupler wants to terminate Millersport fire contract

By Charles Prince

MILLERSPORT – The future of the Millersport Fire Department hung by a thread Tuesday night.

“Millersport Fire Department contract” was the final item on the Walnut Township Trustees’ agenda for their Sept. 28 meeting. Trustee President Sonny Dupler opened the discussion by asking Fiscal Officer Lynn Kraner to read a letter dated Sept. 27 to the Village of Millersport mayor, council members and fiscal officer.

The letter, written by Dupler, opened, “Due to financial cutbacks in funds, Walnut Township is forced to change the fire service structure.” It quickly dismissed the option for a fire district, stating it “would greatly increase the operating expense to the voters.” The letter said, “the present day alternative is a Walnut Township Fire Department. The Trustees feel after reviewing past operating expenses, a township fire department can operate more efficiently.”

The letter added that this year’s fire fund might be short $40,000 to $65,000. Last year, the county auditor certified $948,000 from the multiple fire levies for 2010. The possible shortfall represents a four to seven percent loss. Dupler implied the shortfall could be greater in 2011, but without providing any specific information. …“But the Trustees feel we must make the necessary changes to be prepared for this event.”

Dupler’s concern about a fire levy shortfall doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. A township fund status report dated Sept. 13, 2010, listed a fire operating levy balance of $662,039.94. Trustees paid Millersport $120,053.17 on Sept. 25 and will owe the village another payment of about $120,000 on Dec. 25. That would leave the township a year end balance of about $422,000 in the fire fund, though up to $150,000 might be owned to the Village of Thurston. In the worst case, the township would have a $250,000+ carryover in its fire fund for 2011.

In addition, Millersport absorbs 60 percent of any tax receipt shortfall due to foreclosures or delinquent taxes since its contract calls for 60 percent of the levy receipts, not a specific amount like Thurston receives. Dupler’s letter continued, “A single fire department would mean: One chief, township owns equipment, joint training, less duplication of equipment and effort, personnel trained to be familiar with entire township, testing of all equipments as one, using township fiscal officer, better response time thereby being more efficient in providing equal or better fire and EMS service at the present 6-mill operating levy.” He also claimed that “by changing the payroll structure and using volunteers,” the township “will be able to provide more paid part-time personnel at all stations.”

Dupler added that he hoped the Village of Millersport will join the township in this change “by returning all equipment back to the township.” If the village did so, the current Millersport Fire Department would be known as Walnut Township – Millersport Station. The letter stated that the township would not contract with Millersport for 2011. In fact, the letter cited the 60 day written notice clause to cancel the contract effective December 14, 2010.

When Millersport assistant fiscal officer Vince Popo asked Dupler later in the meeting if the Dec. 14 cancellation meant that the township won’t be making the contractually required fourth and final payment for 2010 of about $120,000, Dupler responded, “Correct.”

Trustee Terry Horn asked Trustee Ralph Zollinger if he had discussed this letter with Dupler. Zollinger replied, “Yes.” Dupler quickly responded in an attempt to paper over an obvious Open Meetings Act violation. Since two trustees represent a majority, they can not discuss township business privately without violating the Act.

“Very little discussion has taken place with Ralph on this,” Dupler claimed. He then proceeded to blame Trustee Terry Horn’s organization of a focus group to discuss a possible fire district as prompting his letter.

“I don’t appreciate that you and Mr. Zollinger have been discussing this letter,” Horn told Dupler. “Andy (Wolfe) and Billy (Phelps) have been a go between,” Dupler said. He acknowledged that the letter hadn’t been discussed with the Village of Millersport.

After limiting public comments to three minutes each, Dupler said, “It will be the same stations. The only thing that may change will be a station here instead of Millersport.” Both the Millersport and Fairfield Beach fire stations are owned by the Millersport Fire Association. Dupler was asked if the association had agreed to let the township use the Fairfield Beach station. Dupler has talked to several members about it, but refused to identify them. Several association members present said they weren’t aware of the subject even being raised.

“Where is the money coming for the new fire station?” Millersport Council member Gary Matheny asked. How will you be getting better coverage since trustees already set the levels via the contract, he added. “We’re running it like you wanted us to,” Matheny told Dupler.

Dupler told him a fire district will cost more. “What’s the new station going to cost?” Matheny asked again. “I don’t know,” Dupler responded.

MIllersport Mayor Dean Severance presented a 2011 contract proposal to trustees. “We feel a joint fire district would be great,” he added. “Each entity would have an equal voice.” Severance said the Millersport Fire Department has supported the community since 1926. Dupler cut him off for time.

Andy Wolfe calmed rising tensions a bit by saying, “I don’t think the trustees can do a better job.” He then said consolidation is important for economic reasons and it’s currently very difficult to get two entities to agree to a joint fire district. The answer is to transition to a township department first, then to a joint district.

“This is a total ambush,” Steve Bush told Dupler and Zollinger. “This is the kind of stuff people are sick and tired off.” He then told Zollinger that he needs to start listening to residents, rather than just Dupler.

“How can the Thurston contract continue?” Bobby Slater asked Dupler. It will continue because it is a 50:50 situation and Thurston has already agreed to turn over their equipment to the township, Dupler told him.

Horn described his efforts to put together a diverse townshipwide focus group to look at all the options. The group’s charge, according to Horn, was to see want could be done “to keep everything in place.” His group came out of the March public forum at the elementary school where most participants wanted to further explore options. Horn said research showed that a joint fire district would cost just $8,000 more than a township fire department. “I thought it was well worth the cost to take the politics out of it,” he said. Horn noted that a fire district would also reduce salaries for trustees and the fiscal officer since they are based on the size of the township’s budget and a fire district would cut the township’s budget by about $1 million.

Horn presented a one-page written proposal to Dupler and Zollinger, calling it a “win/win” for the entire township. It’s a fivestep plan:

1. Trustees approve a resolution to create a joint fire district.

2. An interim township fire department is established under the following conditions:

a. Minimal physical changes in leadership and facilities;

b. Lease fire equipment from the Village of Millersport with an opt out clause where Millersport retains the equipment if a fire district is not created within a defined time frame like 15-24 months;

c. Appoint an interim chief.

d. Thurston and Millersport continue to operate within the same structure and leadership lead by the new chief; and

e. Work toward consolidated operations for training, manpower and resources.

3. Work toward having Millersport, Pleasantville and Thurston join the fire district.

4. Ask voters to approve funding for the new fire district.

5. If voter reject the new fire district, a township fire department is already in place.

“This gets us working together,” Horn said. “I know the stair-step process is a difficult pill to swallow for Millersport” He assured Millersport officials that the equipment belongs to the village. “There is no question.”

Horn then moved to approve a resolution to establish a joint fire district. Dupler continued to insist that a district would cost more and “nobody is willing to go fire district.” Horn’s motion died for the lack of a second.

Dupler then moved to approve his letter. Horn asked, “What’s the rationale for not engaging the village?” Zollinger was asked whether he met with anyone from Millersport. He said he meet with council member Dave Levacy, but didn’t try to meet with council.

“We’re open to dialogue,” Severance said. Horn asked if his proposal was acceptable to the village. “We would protect your assets by leasing your equipment,” he said. “There has to be some kind of transition.”

“Why can’t you leave things alone while you are trying to form a fire district?” asked Millersport Fire Department member Tena Singleton. Horn said he agrees, but a interim township fire department is a compromise.

Millersport Council member Donna Thogmartin said it is too early to take a vote. “We voted for the tax dollars,” she noted.

Horn listed the issues he believes should be resolved before any decision is made on Dupler’s letter:

• Will the township be able to use the fire association’s Fairfield Beach station?

• How much will the new fire station cost and where will the money come from?

• Will Millersport let the township use its equipment for a township fire department?

Matheny continued to press Dupler for the details on his claimed savings and how the township could afford a new station. “You don’t have any figures,” Matheny told him. “I don’t have them in front of me,” Dupler responded. “All I have to do is look down the check ledger.”

Dupler said he would have the figures on Tuesday, but wouldn’t specify a time when Horn pressed him. “There is no use arguing with you, Terry,” Dupler said.

Horn offered to discuss his proposal with Millersport officials and anyone else right after the meeting. Millersport officials said the meeting would have to be public-noticed . Horn settled on 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 5 with the site to be determined. The Millersport Elementary School auditorium has now been confirmed as the site. Horn’s motion for a special meeting on Oct. 5 was seconded by Zollinger and unanimously approved. Horn then moved to table Dupler’s letter which Dupler seconded. It was unanimously tabled.

Dupler sent a written explanation to The Beacon Wednesday morning. He wrote that the proposed cost savings proposal was “made up of suggestions from a Pleasantville council member, mayor of Thurston, private citizens, WT trustee Terry Horn, Trustee Ralph Zollinger and myself.” He added, “I just jelled all the suggestions together.” Dupler wrote that a “more detailed explanation” would be provided at the Oct. 5 Open Forum.

In other business Tuesday night, seven bids were opened for the purchase of the township’s used F-450 dump truck. Bids ranged from $15,100 to $37,565. Trustees unanimously accepted the high bid from Delaware Township Trustees in Defiance County.

Parks Commissioner Tim Morris said the new NatureWorks grant had been signed. That means he can order the equipment for the 15 station Parcouse fitness center to be installed yet this year at the Fairfield Beach Family Park.

Horn reported that progress on “distressed properties” is slow. He said he believed the Chillicothe owner of 8920 Lancaster Thornville Road was going to voluntarily take care of the basement with a partial floor deck. That turned out not to be the case, so he proposed sending the owner a Notice to Remove the Structure under ORC 505.86. That notice provides 60 days for removal, but requires a written action plan in 30 days. Trustees unanimously approved sending the letter.

A similar notice was sent last month to the owner of 8881 Lancaster-Thornville Road, but it turns out that they have not actually found the owner.

For the former Phoenix Tire Recycling facility on Ohio 37, Horn wants to ask the township’s counsel – assistant county prosecutor Jason Dolan – its status and “hopefully see some progress.” His proposal was unanimously approved.

Trustees set a special joint meeting with Millersport Village Council for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 5 at the Millersport Elementary School auditorium. The next regular trustees’ meeting is set for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 12 at the township offices.

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