Smith: Fire district possible, but costly
UNION TOWNSHIP – A Hebron area fire district is possible, but could be expensive, said Licking County Commissioner Doug Smith.
Union Township Trustees invited Smith to speak at the end of their Monday night meeting. Smith was involved with the formation of the West Licking Joint Fire District near Pataskala roughly 30 years ago and described the process to representatives from Heath, Hebron, Buckeye Lake, and Union, Granville, and Licking townships, who had been invited to start a discussion about a possible fire district.
“Everything has a cause and effect,” said Smith. He said when Columbus City Schools started busing in 1979 many Columbus residents migrated to surrounding areas, including southwest Licking County, triggering tremendous growth. At that time, the Tri-Township Fire Association and the Kirkersville Volunteer Fire Department served the area. Smith described the Tri-Township department as a “quasi-public entity” that served the public, but had no administration beyond a board. “At best, this arrangement became unwieldy,” said Smith, adding that the district “grew out of the frustration the growth was causing.”
Smith said a fire district had been discussed since 1976, but with exodus from Columbus, talks began “in earnest” in 1980, and after many “long and contentious” meetings, the West Licking Joint Fire District formed in 1982.
In general, Smith tends to agree that EMS should be more regionalized, but “I won’t say running a department of that size is cheap.” He said it’s expensive to run a 24-hour service with fulltime employees over a large area. However, “I’m not here to tell you what to do,” said Smith.
West Licking Fire District Board members are all elected officials, but not elected to the board. They represent areas covered by the district, such as Harrison Township Trustee Mark Van Buren and Pataskala City Council member Mike Compton. “There is public accountability on that board,” said Smith. “The district would not be controlled by one entity.”
Smith said, “Decision making takes courage sometimes. Our community is a better place because the fire district is there.”
Former Buckeye Lake Council member Peggy Wells asked if a fire district would be more expensive because unions would be recognized.
“Collective bargaining does make a difference,” said Smith, and tends to raise the cost of services. West Licking Joint Fire District at 11.5 voted mills, collects two to three times the millage of entities in the Hebron and Buckeye Lake area.
Former Hebron Village Council member Jim Layton said, “Whatever you do for fire protection is expensive. We’ve been looking at this for 15 years.” He wanted a cost evaluation study for a district to proceed. “At least look at it; doing it the right way,” he said. “For 15 years I’ve said let’s at least do a study.”
“I think in general, that fire districts can be beneficial where there are overlaps in service, both operationally and administratively or where a population center overlaps political boundaries,” said Granville Township Fire Department Chief Jeff Hussey. “This usually occurs where stations are located in close proximity to each other.
“There may be some efficiencies to be gained by a few of the entities that were present, but I am not seeing any immediate, substantial benefits for Granville Township at this point,” said Hussey.
However, he said the department is still open minded, and is willing to attend future meetings, since the fire district efforts could impact some of the residents Hussey’s department currently serves. Union Township contracts with Granville Township Fire to cover the area north of the railroad track.
“I currently feel, based on current location of resources, we are in the best position to appropriately serve northern Union Township,” Hussey continued. He said there is some risk if Union Township placed the entire township into a district and Granville did not participate, the northern section would experience longer response times from the Hebron station. “In addition to the degradation in service, the property owners in this area would see their ISO ratings change from class 8B to class 10. This would likely increase insurance premiums for many homeowners in that area,” said Hussey. He said a solution to that problem could be leaving the northern section of the township out of the fire district, but continue to contract with Granville Township. “This is the same scenario that exists in Jersey Township, where the southern portion is located in the West Licking District, but the northern section continues to be served by contract by Monroe Township,” he said. “That particular arrangement has worked well for over 30 years.”
Hebron Mayor Clifford Mason found the presentation to be a good introduction to how the West Licking Joint Fire District was formed--period. “What really needs to happen is local governments who are interested in the formation of a fire district or whom might be interested in improving the delivery of fire and EMS services to their communities need to act legislatively to make this happen,” he said. “We can sit around and talk forever on how to ‘improve services, how to create a fire district, how to, how to, how to,’ but if the elected officials from the respective communities fail to take action, we will always have what we currently have – a system that needs improvement.”
Mason said he believes Hebron will investigate applying for Local Government Innovation Funds to fund a study on whether or not a fire district is appropriate.
“I was glad Rick Black took the initiative to gather all the potential players to discuss the possibility of a fire district,” said Buckeye Lake Village Council President Charlene Hayden. “I think a fire district is possible, but it will be difficult to get all the entities on the same page.” She said each department is very protective of its turf and the citizens it serves. “Probably because they feel they have more control and they have a vested interest in the community,” said Hayden. “I’ve learned that fire fighters and EMS personnel take their jobs very seriously and want to do their very best in emergency situations. When you are taking care of people you know, it makes the situation even closer to your heart.”
With respect to a fire district, Hayden believes service would be good and she’s confident a professional would be available to take care of people’s needs. “I also believe a fire district comes with much higher costs due to the need for a more complex administrative structure,” said Hayden. “Administrative personnel do not contribute directly to the personal care of residents. Their job is to make sure people and equipment are available for that personal care. So this is purely speculation on my part, but I think a fire district is good from the standpoint of service, but that service will come at a much greater expense to taxpayers. So basically, it is up to the taxpayers as to how much they are willing to invest in emergency services.”
Hayden said Walnut Township and Millersport met about three years ago to discuss a fire district in that area. “I have not asked anyone in charge in Millersport or Walnut Township exactly why the district was not put in place, but I have heard that it was not cost effective,” said Hayden.
“I was impressed with the meeting, Rick Black, Commissioner Smith, and others. Much of the discussion and ideas presented make a lot of sense,” said Buckeye Lake Mayor Rick Baker. “It seems that efficiency and available manpower could very much improve. Obviously, everything good comes with a price.”
“It was a very positive experience,” said Black Wednesday. “We (trustees) accomplished what we set out to do-get everyone in the same place at the same time so the story isn’t twisted around.”
He said people came from places such as Eden Township and Millersport who weren’t contacted to be part of the district, and people attended the meeting whom Black knew had doubts about a district.
Black emphasized Union Township trustees are “in no way” ready to support or dismiss a fire district. Far more research is necessary before they will be able to decide. However, Black said he believes people see Union Township as a “neutral ground,” which helped create the strong attendance to Monday’s meeting. Should additional meetings regarding a district take place, “We’re willing to host it,” he said.