2013-05-11 / Editorials & Letters

A Dangerous Distraction

Patients 1st advocate Peggy Wells called Monday night’s meeting in Union Township about a possible fire district a ‘distraction.’ We believe it needs the adjective “dangerous” to more accurately describe it.

Right now EMS/fire services are in critical condition in both Union Township and Buckeye Lake Village. The Union Township problem is strictly financial. Last fall, Union Township Trustees unilaterally cut their contribution to the Hebron Fire Department’s operating expenses by more than $200,000 a year. Trustee Rick Black presented a take it or leave it offer of just $420,000 for 2013. Trustees refused to use general fund revenues to supplement fire levy income. Hebron grudgingly took the deal, forcing them to use funds set aside for capital expenditures for operating expenses. Hebron is also looking at making significant budget cuts for the second half of the year that will affect personnel. Buckeye Lake’s continuing management failures affect both response times and patient care.

Somehow we suspect Union Township Trustee President Rick Black is more interested in raising his profile for next May’s primary to replace County Commissioner Doug Smith than addressing the very real EMS/fire service issues the township will face next year. Starting a lengthy discussion about a fire district now could also be a ploy to avoid asking Union Township residents for another mill this November. Black is up for reelection in November and probably doesn’t want to share the ballot with a tax increase. All he has to do is keep the fire district ball in the air just past the early August deadline to put a levy on the November ballot. Trustees are likely planning another poverty plea, hoping again that Hebron will take $420,000 rather than nothing. Hebron property owners pay six mills for EMS/fire as opposed to just 3.3 mills in Union Township.

Buckeye Lake Village officials are all in for fire district discussions. It’s another excuse to avoid taking any action to fix their broken department. They need to buy about four more months of delay until they can start their ‘scare campaign’ for the levy renewal. The issue will then be framed as a so-called ‘improving’ fire department versus none at all. With this year’s $155,000 carryover, Buckeye Lake could still afford a one-year contract with Hebron for 2014 even if voters rejected the levy. Hebron’s Option 3 costs about $110,000 a year. Watch for the pride and control group to try to spend most of that carryover by November on unneeded equipment etc. A proposal to spend more than $20,000 on new turnout gear for new members/part-timers could come to a vote as early as Monday, May 13. Thankfully turnout gear gets little use in Buckeye Lake as structure and vehicle fires are rare. Plus there’s plenty of used gear bought for former members available. Let’s see how long some of these new people stay around before investing $3,500 to $4,000 each for rarely used gear. Don’t let them spend our insurance policy for 2014.

A fire district doesn’t make financial sense until ORC 4117.01 is amended. Currently, it states that a “public or special district” is a “public employer.” That means a district must bargain with a union. According to the State Employee Relations Board, Ohio has 33 Emergency Medical and Fire districts. Twenty-three of them have union contracts including the two lake area districts - Basil Joint and West Licking. Basil has done much better than West Licking in holding the line on full-time positions. Just nine of the 64 West Licking professional fire fighters are part-time. It’s not surprising that district property owners are paying a whopping 11.5 mills in taxes. Basil has eight full-time employees which is considerably more than Hebron’s five, Licking Township’s one and none for Buckeye Lake, Millersport, Thorn Township and Thurston-Walnut Township. Basil’s 9.27 mills is 50 percent higher than the top lake-area six mills for non-district departments.

Quite simply, ORC 4117.01 eventually destroys the economic model that works successfully for Granville, Hebron, Millersport, Thorn Township and Thurston- Walnut Township. It would work for Buckeye Lake too with different management. Unions work incessantly to eliminate part-time positions. Those part-time positions are the economic backbone for many small town/rural departments transitioning from all-volunteer to a mix of paid employees. Our communities don’t have the tax base or the runs to support or justify predominately full-time departments. There are plenty of other demands for our taxes.

Both Buckeye Lake Village officials and Union Township Trustees need to focus exclusively on solving their current deficiencies, not on a new structure that would increase our taxes 50-100 percent.

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