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Champaign townships debate fire, EMS future

Rising costs for service have some considering new districts.

As costs to provide fire and emergency medical services have spiked across Champaign County in recent years, several townships are reviewing a recent study to determine whether it makes sense to start their own fire and EMS district.

Earlier this year, Urbana Twp., Goshen Twp., Salem Twp., Union Twp., and the Village of Mechanicsburg agreed to pay $20,000 to the Ohio Fire Chiefs Association to study the creation of a new fire district. Costs for services are rising not just in Champaign County, but statewide, said Matt DeTemple, executive director of the Ohio Township Association.

As state legislators have slashed funding for cities and townships statewide, those entities have had to find other ways of raising revenue to maintain the services they have traditionally provided, DeTemple said. For townships, the only way to raise revenue is to ask residents to approve levies. They are also looking increasingly for ways to share services, which would include plans like creating a new fire district.

“Local governments, including cities, are scrambling to make ends meet, and one of the ways to do that is to raise more revenue,” DeTemple said.

Local township officials said any decisions are still a long way off, and creating a new fire district would involve coordinated efforts between several entities, as well as input and approval from residents who would be affected by the change. The decision will be whether to pay higher costs up front to create a new fire district, which might provide more stability to the townships in the long-term. They also could continue negotiating contracts with existing fire districts, and hope those costs become more stable.

For now, most local township officials are examining information and will form advisory committees to help investigate the issue further, said Tim Cassady, a Goshen Twp, trustee.

“They’re not looking to just patch a hole today,” Cassady said. “They’re looking to be able to provide those services well into the future at the best price they can get.”

The debate about how to best provide fire and EMS services began as contracts for many of the townships rose sharply, leading to several issues on the ballot recently seeking new millage for fire and EMS protection. In Urbana Twp., for example, the township paid about $67,000 for the service in 2010, but the cost rose to as much as $151,000 in 2012. That figure is expected to rise to about $232,000 by 2015, according to the townships’s contract with the City of Urbana.

The report from the Ohio Fire Chiefs Association said creating a new fire district is feasible and presented two separate samples of how such an entity might look. If created, all residents within the district would pay the same rate for service, although it may be more expensive up front than the current structure. Most township officials involved said their residents now pay about 4 mills for fire and EMS service, but the report recommended a more expensive levy to prepare for necessary repairs or other unexpected expenses that might occur.

“A 5-mill levy or 5.5-mill levy would also provide sufficient funds, but the margin is much tighter,” the report said. “Given that costly repairs and other unexpected expenses can occur suddenly, the 6.0-mill levy would appear to provide sufficient reserve funds to meet those types of unexpected challenges.”

Under the first option presented in the report, the new fire district would include all four townships as well as Mechanicsburg, and would include part-time staff and between 20 and 25 volunteers who would be trained and recruited to provide an adequate response. The base pay rate for part-time staff would be about $9 an hour.

The second option would include Urbana, Union and Goshen Twps., as well as Mechanicsburg. It would also include the southern portion of Salem Twp., south of a line made by Lippencott, Short Game Farm, Sibley, Kennard-Kingscreek and Flatfoot Roads. The second option would include fewer service calls because of its smaller area, and the report recommended a 6.5-mill levy and EMS billing to provide funds for the district. Both plans would include using the current Mechanicsburg Fire Station as one base of operations, as well as a second fire station that would have to be built or renovated on the western side of the fire district.The report argued the second option would be the most practical of the two options.

Any decision on either option is still a long way off, but the report provides a starting point for discussion, said Lewis Terry, an Urbana Twp. trustee. The township still has two years remaining on its contract with the city of Urbana, and Terry said there will be discussions about what kinds of costs the township can expect in the future under the current scenario.

Although the trustees from each township can decide to start a new fire district, doing so would still require the approval of voters to approve a higher millage rate to cover the expenses. Ultimately, it will be up to area residents to decide which direction to take, Terry said.

“Not just Urbana Twp., but all the townships, want feedback from the community,” Terry said.

It’s not clear exactly how much the creation of a new fire district would impact the city of Urbana’s fire division, said Mark Keller, chief of the Urbana Fire Division. But he estimated it would mean a reduction of about $300,000 in revenue to the city, which has contracts with some of the townships. More than 90 percent of the Fire Division’s revenue goes toward personnel costs, so a new fire district would likely mean a reduction in staff for the city.

At the same time, Keller said the townships are doing what they need to to examine the best options for their residents. In the past, the townships were getting a reduced rate for the city’s services, Keller said. But as state revenues dropped, the city had to demand higher fees from the townships for service. Because it’s impossible to determine the percentage of township residents that pay city income tax, the city settled on charging 50 percent of the cost to provide service to the townships based on population and the average number of runs. The rates will likely continue to rise until 2015, and will stabilize afterward, Keller said.

Even if the townships do decide to create a fire district, each entity would have to be on the same page for the proposals to work, said Charles Dooley, a Union Twp. trustee. If even one of the townships or Mechanicsburg backed out of the deal, or if residents refused to approve a higher tax rate to pay for the service, the plan would likely fall through. At a time when residents are facing rising costs from school levies and other public services, Dooley said it’s not clear that residents will be willing to foot the bill.

“My opinion is it could happen, but realistically I don’t think it’s going to happen quickly,” Dooley said.

Gathering input from residents will be important, Terry said, because the decision made now will have an impact on how EMS and fire service is delivered in the region for decades.

“It’s probably the biggest decision the township trustees have ever faced,” Terry said.

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