Hilliard Northwest News

Brown Township

Trustees will make fire-levy call in July

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Brown Township Trustee Joe Martin said June 16 the trustees are "90 percent" certain there is no better deal than to receive EMS and fire-suppression services from Norwich Township but they still are trying to find out if the Columbus or Prairie Township fire departments could step in if the contract with Norwich were lost.

Residents should know by the end of next month what the trustees learn and if another levy request will appear on the fall ballot.

At issue is the potential loss of EMS and fire protection for Brown Township's approximately 650 households as a result of two consecutive rejected fire-levy requests.

The levy requests were a response to the 4.12-mill fire levy Norwich Township and Hilliard voters approved in May 2013, requiring Brown Township to follow suit in order to maintain an equal effective millage rate for both townships, according to the terms of the contract.

After the failure of the second levy in May by nine votes, the Norwich Township trustees approved a resolution advising Brown Township they would suspend EMS and fire-suppression services beginning May 15, 2015, if Brown residents rejected another levy request this fall.

In order to place a levy on the Nov. 4 ballot, Brown Township would have to meet an Aug. 6 filing deadline at the Franklin County Board of Elections. The only regularly scheduled meeting of the trustees prior to the filing deadline is July 21.

The trustees laid out their current plans in a June 16 meeting attended by one resident. The plans were based, in part, on feedback received from about 100 Brown Township residents who attended a June 12 community meeting at Station 82, 2491 Walker Road.

The trustees initially considered holding another community meeting in August to respond to the concerns raised June 12.

One of those considerations was to act July 21 to place a levy on the ballot with the caveat it could be withdrawn later if a better alternative were found.

That idea ultimately was rejected.

"I think that's suicide," Trustee Pam Sayre said.

Even if the levy request could be withdrawn, the perception would be the trustees had already plotted a decisive course of action with a third attempt at a fire levy, Sayre said.

During a two-hour discussion, the trustees eventually formed another plan.

"I think it's important we let the residents know as soon as possible what we're thinking," Martin said.

The trustees agreed to publish and mail a printed newsletter prior to July 21 to summarize the June 12 community meeting and advise residents the township is studying how it could obtain services from Columbus or Prairie Township.

The results of those findings would be communicated at the July 21 trustees meeting, Martin said.

At that same meeting, the trustees would make a decision whether to place a 5.12-mill fire levy on the November ballot, but they would have the flexibility, if needed, to postpone the decision and schedule a special meeting after July 21 but before the filing deadline, Martin said.

Trustees took two formal actions June 16 concerning the fire levy. They passed a resolution requesting the board of elections to set the necessary levy amount and established a minimum requirement for services.

The minimum requirement of services includes mutual aid, which would not be available if Brown Township resorted to a volunteer fire department or a private contract.

For now, trustees are not considering a volunteer fire department or an arrangement with a private company.

"For now, those are not options, but could be if another levy fails," Fiscal Officer Greg Ruwe said.

Trustees said it appears improbable Columbus or Prairie Township could provide a better offer than Norwich.

"I'm 90 percent sure," Martin said.

Martin said township officials consider Norwich the best choice, but they need to demonstrate it to residents.

Ruwe said he expects Prairie Township would demand Brown match its effective millage rate, which is 4 mills higher than Norwich's, and that Columbus would likely demand annexation in exchange for service, but township officials have yet to discover what it would cost or whether either department would agree to provide service.

At the June 12 community meeting, Columbus Assistant Chief Karry Ellis, speaking informally from the audience, said the Columbus fire department has not been asked whether it is interested in providing service.

Ellis said Columbus could not provide service to Brown Township for the same cost as Norwich and said mutual aid was a factor to consider.

"You're not an island. You're getting all three (Norwich) stations," Ellis said.

Most of the 100-member crowd June 12 appeared in favor of the levy required to maintain the contract with Norwich Township, yet comments from both sides of the issue elicited applause.

Martin cut off public debate after one hour.

"I feel like we're being held hostage," resident Gene Estep said.

Kevin Wilgus suggested a federal grant be used to establish a volunteer fire department.

"Jiggle the numbers any way you want ... we're being asked to pay more," said Wilgus, referring to the fewer number of service calls for Brown Township compared to Norwich.

Other residents responded in kind.

"It's ridiculous to be arguing about mills; what we should be doing is figuring out how to pass this levy," said Terri Stahl.

Nancy Pitt, citing the additional $15 a month the failed levy would have cost the owner of a $100,000 residence, said, "Isn't the life of someone you love (or savings) your house worth that?"

The 5.12-mill levy rejected 352-343 by voters May 6 would have generated $455,016 annually and cost homeowners about $179 a year per $100,000 of assessed property value.

Brown Township residents last approved a fire levy in 2004, for 3.2 mills. The only other levy on the books in Brown Township is an 8-mill levy, the first in the township, approved in 1994.

Combined, their effective rate is 6.88 mills, according to Ruwe, almost 5 mills less than the 11.5-mill effective rate Norwich Township and Hilliard residents are assessed for EMS and fire services.

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