Not so fast!
Three short weeks ago on July 10, representatives from the Village of Hebron, Union Township Trustees and others met with the Licking County Budget Commission (county auditor, county prosecutor and county treasurer). The meeting was prompted by Union Township’s plans to put an additional 1.5 mill levy for fire/EMS services on the Nov. 5 ballot.
The issue – residents of incorporated areas (Villages of Buckeye Lake and Hebron plus small portions of the City of Heath and Village of Granville) voting for township officials, but not voting on nor paying township property tax levies – goes back many years. Reportedly, current County Auditor Michael Smith raised the issue six to seven years ago when he was clerk to the board of county commissioners. The issue was dropped as a couple members of the budget commission were retiring and not likely interested in the complex issue.
Now six to seven years later, Buckeye Lake and Hebron officials are supposed to decide by August 30 whether to leave Union Township or stay. Six to seven years has suddenly turned into seven weeks. Sue Penick, executive director of the Licking County Board of Elections, set the August 30 deadline because of its impact on the Nov. 5 ballot.
If they stay, Buckeye Lake and Hebron residents will continue to vote for township officials and can serve themselves, but will now vote on new township levies and pay them if approved. Union Township Trustees have encouraged both Buckeye Lake and Hebron to leave the township. They fear village voters will oppose the township’s 1.5 mill additional levy for fire/EMS services since Buckeye Lake property owners are already paying five mills and Hebron’s are paying six mills compared to the current 3.8 mills in the township.
Union Township and Hebron’s Safety Committee had their first meeting to discuss the 2014 fire/EMS services contract Monday night. Buckeye Lake’s mayor, council president, safety committee chair, a council member and a fire captain were unexpected observers. Most of the discussion focused on the township’s proposed additional levy and its prospects for approval. Buckeye Lake officials are moving toward leaving the township, fearing a second fire/EMS levy on the their ballot would cause both levies to fail.
On the other hand, Hebron officials are reluctant to leave the township, believing it would reduce cooperation and possibly destroy their long-time fire department partnership.
Leaving the township would reduce property taxes for both Buckeye Lake and Hebron property owners - Trustee President Rick Black thought the amount for Hebron was about $50,000 a year, though he wasn’t sure it would all go back to Hebron. Buckeye Lake’s contribution to the township is about $30,000 a year. The impact of that revenue loss on the township is unknown.
We support former Hebron Village Administrator Mike McFarland’s suggestion that voters be given time to understand and absorb the issue. He suggested local officials ask county officials to push back the deadline to sometime in 2014. There are simply too many unanswered questions to make an informed decision by August 30. County officials have let the issue slide for many years; another six months or so isn’t a big deal.
Additional time would also allow officials to fully consider Hebron Mayor Clifford Mason’s suggestion that they form a ‘paper’ fire district with current revenues while they evaluate a real fire district that must be approved by voters. He noted that both Buckeye Lake and Union Township had approved resolutions of support for a Local Government Innovation Grant to conduct a fire district feasibility study.
We believe that splitting away Union Township from both Buckeye Lake and Hebron is moving backward. Trustees will have no incentives to look at the bigger picture. A township that retains its major incorporated areas could be the catalyst to increase shared services. Black complained several times Monday night that the state government has balanced its budget on the backs of local government. That’s all the more reason for local governments to work together to provide the most cost efficient services possible for their residents.
The first step is to collectively tell the county budget commission that it’s unreasonable to resolve such a long-standing issue in just seven weeks. We hope local officials can agree quickly to take that first step.