New Carlisle asks voters to raise property taxes for fire department

New Carlisle will ask voters for more property taxes on the May 8 ballot for new equipment and a potential boost in pay for the city’s firefighters and medics.

Mayor Ethan Reynolds, who considers himself a fiscal conservative, admitted the city has a long history of spending its revenue ineffectively. But he argued the proposed 3-mill, five-year levy is necessary for a department with an old fire engine and a medic unit with about to 140,000 miles on it. Reynolds said he’s typically opposed city tax increases in the past.

READ MORE: New Carlisle Council seeks tax increase for fire/EMS

“I am the most conservative voice on city council,” Reynolds said. “I voted against all taxes and fees to come on the ballot. This was the one time that I supported something like this and it’s because the money’s not there.”

Council members unanimously voted recently to place the property tax levy on the ballot this spring and the language is being reviewed at the Clark County auditor’s office, according to city staff. The levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $105 per year.

RELATED: New Carlisle votes to put tax increase on ballot for fire division

New Carlisle Fire Chief Steve Trusty said the agency’s ambulance unit is only seven years old but has more than 140,000 miles on it. The department’s main fire engine is 20 years old. While both units are operational now, Trusty argued repair and maintenance costs are likely to spike if they aren’t replaced.

Although Reynolds said pay increases for staff aren’t the primary goal of the levy, Trusty said some of the additional revenue could be used to make the department’s pay more competitive. Other area departments have boosted pay, the chief said, while New Carlisle hasn’t over the past several years.

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“Right now our paramedics are being paid on average $3 less an hour than the surrounding departments,” Trusty said. “We are officially the lowest-paid department in the county.”

The city’s fire department has staff on hand around the clock, but Trusty said most are part-time employees and staffing the agency is often a challenge. The department has about 65 total staff members who are part-time or paid per call, Trusty said.

The fire department raised about $16,000 in grants and has hosted fundraisers, but Trusty said the new equipment isn’t affordable without new revenue. A new ambulance can cost about $250,000 without equipment, he said, and a fire engine can cost between $450,000 to $500,000.

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The department will hold an open house on Saturday, Feb. 24, to allow voters to see the current equipment and ask questions about the proposed levy.

Former New Carlisle leaders managed the city’s money poorly over the past several years, Reynolds said, mostly tied to bad real estate deals that ended up costing taxpayers. But he argued New Carlisle’s current leadership is more efficient and looking for potential cuts in the budget.

Reynolds pointed to the recent collapse of a grain bin along Ohio 571, arguing an adequately staffed department is critical to safety for local residents.

“It takes money to save people’s lives and stop their homes from burning down,” Reynolds said. “This is something that affects them so I think the voters of New Carlisle will gladly support this. The levies I don’t think New Carlisle supports are operational levies in the sense of increases in the general fund, which can be piddled away with pay raises and fiscal irresponsibility.”

Kent Scarrett, executive director of the Ohio Municipal League, said cities statewide increasingly face funding challenges, which he attributed largely to issues that include the elimination of the estate tax and an accelerated phase-out of personal tangible property tax, among other cuts.

“The things our taxpayers see as services are police and fire,” Scarrett said. “When these revenue changes hit our communities, it’s a challenge to provide the same level of service that we have in the past with reduced revenue.”

The Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters started providing consulting services to promote fire levies around seven years ago at no cost to cities who are members, particularly after the state made changes that impacted local municipal budgets, said Doug Stern, director of communication. New Carlisle isn’t a member of the organization but the organization has worked with Springfield.

Stern estimated the organization has provided consulting for about 100 levies for cities and townships over the past eight or nine years.

But he said property values that were harmed after the recession several years ago also played a significant role in reducing revenue that cities use to pay for emergency services at the same time that equipment costs have risen. He said the organization hasn’t studied whether more cities are seeking additional revenue now than in past years.

“Fire service is fundamentally different than it was in the 1950s and 1960s, when we had mostly volunteer fire departments,” Stern said. “We’re doing so much more. We’re covering EMS, and instead of just a fire department, we’ve kind of become an all-hazards department where the call volume makes it almost impossible for most communities to rely strictly on volunteers coming from home.”

Cities asking for additional taxes need to be careful to ask only for what’s needed, he said.

“This isn’t a time to ask for more than you need,” Stern said. “This is a time to be very honest with your community and tell them what you need to make the fire department the way you want it to best serve them.”

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