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Union Township looking at options to Hebron Fire

HEBRON – Union Township Trustees are hopeful they can still reach an agreement with the Hebron Village Council and the Hebron Fire Department, but they are preparing for “Plan B” in case their problems can’t be resolved. The alternative plan is to meet with the mayors of Heath and Buckeye Lake, and possibly contract for services with one of their departments instead of Hebron.

The trustees remain at odds with Hebron over the use and accountability of funds generated by EMS billing. Trustees say they are paying roughly 60 percent of the department’s operating costs in return for the department providing fire/EMS services to most of the township. Union Township contracts with Granville Township Fire Department to service the portion of the township north of the CSX railway. Consequently, trustees believe they should decide how 60 percent of the EMS billing revenue is used within the fire department.

Union Township already owns a significant portion of Hebron’s fire equipment and EMS billing revenue, say the trustees, would offset much of the township’s operational costs and save township taxpayers’ money. However, the trustees believe Hebron is unwilling to give up its control over how the department uses the money. EMS billing has generated nearly $200,000 since July 2007, when billing began.

Monday night, Trustee President John Slater said the trustees met with Hebron officials Saturday to discuss the issue. Recently, Hebron council members agreed to a two-month fire contract extension to provide time to resolve the issue before trustees sign a 2009 contract with Hebron. Slater said he believes now is the time to discuss “other concepts” and he believes members of the Hebron council think the trustees’ request is unfair.

Trustee Jack Justice said he doesn’t want to break ties with the Hebron Fire Department, but the situation may have “digressed to the point where it’s not repairable,” he said. “Our request is 100 percent fair.” He said the trustees should schedule talks with Buckeye Lake Mayor Frank Foster and Heath Mayor Richard J. Waugh as back-ups. Justice said Buckeye Lake in particular is within Union Township and strategically located.

Slater said the trustees should at least open discussions. “It’s not unrealistic to think we may need a new home,” he said. Slater added that Hebron officials commented that losing Union Township wouldn’t significantly affect Hebron Fire Department operations.

“Hopefully we can get things worked out,” said Justice. He said the trustees demonstrated Saturday that they intend to stay with Hebron, but “you get tired of being looked at as a cash register.”

Slater said Hebron and trustees are “pretty far apart” at this point, but added he wants to be sure no more hard feeling are created between the village and the township.

Justice suggested asking Foster and Waugh to create contract proposals, but also said Hebron fire does an outstanding job. “We’re caught in the middle,” he said.

Slater was clear the township would never directly receive the money, which stays within the Hebron department; trustees only want more say in how it’s used. Justice said if the Hebron government doesn’t budge on this issue, “that’s the end.” He commented that under a previous council administration, the township and village were “one big, happy family” and the trustees never had problems with the fire department. “It was fine relationship,” he said. “Now it’s a fight.”

Waugh is on vacation, but Heath Fire Chief Mark Huggins said Tuesday that the City of Heath would “hear what (the trustees) have to say,” although he wasn’t aware of the trustees’ desire to contract outside of Hebron. He said he wants to be careful not to “step on anyone’s toes” or offend anyone in Hebron.

“Talk is inexpensive,” said Heath Auditor Keith Alexander. Although Waugh is away, Alexander said he could safely say the mayor is always willing to talk to anyone and would be willing to discuss the situation with the trustees.

“I am always open to discussing any scenario with any entity,” said Foster. He said supporting such a move must be in the best interest of the Village of Buckeye Lake. “We are not pursuing such a move with any entity but would always be open to discussing how we could provide a service that would benefit all involved,” said Foster. He said he supports sharing services and assets to the mutual benefit of all involved, especially in this economy.

Foster said village council members would make the decision based upon input from as many sources as possible, especially the Buckeye Lake Fire Department chief and staff.

Hebron Mayor Clifford Mason said Wednesday that, in his opinion, the village and township have not reached a stalemate or impasse and negotiations should continue. He said they had one meeting that lasted a couple of hours and although not all issues were resolved, he’s certainly open to scheduling more meetings.

Mason said he also offered to invite an impartial mediator to meetings if everyone believes it would help. At any rate, Mason said village council is willing to continue working with the trustees until the issue is resolved. “The ball’s back in their court,” he said. Mason added he invited trustees to the combined council committees meeting at 6 p.m. on Monday, January 26, at the Hebron Municipal Complex.

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