Delaware News

Orange trustees trim fire levy, head to Feb. 5 ballot


Firefighters in Orange Township know their jobs are on the line after the failure of a three-year, 7.8-mill levy on Nov. 6. Some indicated to township officials at an emergency meeting Nov. 7 that they are willing to do what they can to keep the department running.

"When everything is said and done, we know we have to make concessions,"Eric Hollenbeck, president of the firefighters' union, said at the Nov. 7 meeting. "If I get laid off, I lose my house. Period ...

"We are more than willing to make sacrifices to keep everyone employed."

That apparently includes a willingness to make concessions in a new contract currently being negotiated. The current three-year contract, in which full-time firefighters received raises totalling 11 percent, expires Dec. 31. Top-scale firefighters make $63,000 annually.

"We have to rely on the trustees to make the right decision," he said.

"If it fails the next time, you won't have a fire department."

At the meeting, trustees agreed to place a three-year, 7.5-mill levy on the Feb. 5 special election ballot. Nov. 7 was the deadline to do so.

In an earlier vote that day to seek certification of the millage amount from the Delaware County Auditor, Trustees Rob Quigley and Debbie Taranto supported the 7.5 mill levy.

Trustee Lisa Knapp expressed concerns that 7.5 mills was too close to the 7,8-mill levy that failed and urged going for a 7-mill levy that might be more appealing to voters. Quigley and Taranto thought that was too low.

In the later vote, Knapp said she agreed to vote to place the levy on the ballot to show a unified front. Knapp and Taranto are new trustees, elected last November. Quigley, trustee chairman, was elected in November 2009.

The department currently has 42 full-time firefighters, 10 part-timers, a chief and assistant chief and several others in a staff of about 65. Collections on a three-year, 5-mill levy expire at the end of December.

The department expects to spend about $6.8 million this year, mostly on salaries and benefits, and have another $1 million set aside for capital expenditures such as fire truck purchases.

Some firefighters questioned what contingency plan township leaders had to deal with a levy failure.

"Why not tell the whole picture (to the public)?" firefighter Jason Skaggs asked. "I don't understand why we didn't let them know what will happen. ... We could lay off half our staff."

Firefighter Andrew Sapp also said he is concerned about how the levy was handled.

"I think the communication problem we have (with the public) is just huge," he said. "I have three little girls. I'm at the bottom of the list" to be laid off first.

Quigley and Fire Chief Tom Stewart and Assistant Chief Matt Noble said efforts were made to educate the public about the levy. At an open house earlier this year, Noble said the department only would have about $1.2 million to carry over into 2013. Without new money, that would only last about three months.

Quigley said he met with the two chiefs most of the morning following the levy's defeat to find cuts for a bare-bones new levy. Among cuts are no major vehicle purchases, no training or travel and cutting back on overtime. Stewart and Noble said the department might also have to start charging fees for EMS runs.

"In my view, safety is the most important thing ... we're trying to maintain a level of service," Quigley said.

Unofficial election results show the levy lost by 465 votes.

"It wasn't a complete "Yes" (vote) and it wasn't a complete "No,"

Quigley said of the levy results.

Taranto agreed that a 7.5-mill levy would maintain services at the current level.

Knapp was concerned about funding for 2013, even if the levy passes in February.

Collection of any property tax passed in February won't begin until Jan. 1, 2014.

"I'm not sure what the public is willing to pass," Knapp said. "We're all looking at our crystal balls ... I do support the fire department."

She said she is not optimistic they the public will go for 7.5 mills.

When trustees approved the 7.8-mill levy earlier this year by a 2 to 1 vote, Knapp supported a 7.4-mill levy.

Although it's possible the township could borrow money if the February levy passes, that would only add extra money to be paid in interest and principal.

And without any money, other than the $1.2 million carry-over into 2013, Stewart and Nobel said after the meeting that they might have to ask for layoffs soon just to try to save some more money.

That would include laying off 22 full-time firefighters, all the part-timers, and closing the oldest fire station on South Old State Road. The chiefs estimated that could save about $190,000 a month, with $60,000 of that going to unemployment benefits for laid-off firefighters.

This is the second public safety issue to fail in Orange Township since 2010. A police levy lost two years ago. No new police levy attempts have been made.

The township currently is using about $500,000 a year from the general fund to pay for eight contract deputies from the county sheriff's office. That contract is up for renewal at the end of December.