Liberty Township fire levy loses by a hair

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

An emergency levy to support the Liberty Township Fire Department will be put before township residents in the near future after voters rejected a fire levy on the Nov. 6 ballot by a razor-thin margin, officials say.

Final, unofficial results from the Delaware County Board of Elections showed the proposed five-year, 6.6-mill levy failing by a margin of 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent, with 7,666 votes against the levy and 7,564 supporting it.

The current operating levy is the sole dedicated funding source for township’s fire and EMS services – and it expires at the end of the year.

Outstanding provisional ballots potentially could force a recount, which is automatically triggered for local ballot issues in Delaware County if the margin is within one-half of 1 percent. The margin of defeat Nov. 6 stood at 0.66 percent.

Fire officials said approval of the levy would have allowed the township to preserve staffing levels and continue to provide the current level of fire and emergency medical services.

Now that it has failed, officials will seek to pass a smaller levy to keep the department running.

Township Trustee Curt Sybert said the levy’s failure is “a sign of the times,” with voters unwilling to support increased taxes. Voters in neighboring Orange Township also rejected a fire levy Nov. 6.

“We’re going to have to go back to the ballot with some sort of emergency levy, but we’re going to have to talk about that,” Sybert said. “It’s back to work.

“It’s obvious that half the people supported the levy and half did not, so we just have to fine-tune it,” he added.

Sybert wouldn’t speculate on a timeline for the emergency levy, but according to township Fiscal Officer Mark Gerber, the department’s carryover balance will fund the department, at current staffing levels, for only about six weeks.

Even if a smaller levy passes, the township will have to borrow money to fund services through the end of 2013, but the fire department might be preserved in some capacity.

Still, Sybert said staffing reductions are inevitable. Fire Chief Tim Jensen maintains those reductions will hurt the overall quality of services.

If a levy isn’t passed early next year, it’s uncertain whether any fire services could be provided at all, though some level of emergency medical services likely would be provided by Delaware County EMS, which serves the entire county.

The 6.6-mill levy would have replaced a 6-mill levy originally approved in 2002, which currently is being collected at 4.64 mills due to the growth of the township in the past decade.

The new levy would have generated $8.46 million and cost homeowners $202.43 annually for each $100,000 in home value. The current levy generates $6 million and costs residents $143.17 annually per $100,000 in home value.

If it had passed, the new levy would have cost the owner of a $300,000 home about an extra $15 per month.

The department hadn’t asked for an increase in revenue since 2002. Since that time, the township’s population has nearly doubled and the fire department’s staffing levels rose from six firefighters per shift to 15.

As a result of that growth, expenditures outpaced revenues by about $1 million in 2012, and the fire department’s cash reserves are dwindling.

In the months before the election, levy opponents, including Trustee Melanie Leneghan, argued the proposed tax hike, which would have constituted a 42 percent increase in the cost of fire and emergency medical services, was unreasonable.

Leneghan said the levy’s failure was “not a vote against our fire department.

“It was instead a vote against a 42 percent tax increase,” she said. “It was about holding the leadership accountable for their tax dollars.”
She said she would work with her fellow trustees to pass a smaller levy for “only what the township needs.”

A survey of fire departments in neighboring communities revealed the Liberty Township department’s staffing ratios are about average for the region, though some rural townships do respond to more calls with fewer staff members.
 

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