Jerome Township firefighters went on an emergency medical run at noon Jan. 27, and radioed to the station they needed to take their patient to Riverside Hospital in Columbus.

Jerome Township firefighters went on an emergency medical run at noon Jan. 27, and radioed to the station they needed to take their patient to Riverside Hospital in Columbus.

"Basically that means if we get a call in the next hour for help, there's not much we can do but call in mutual assistance," Jerome fire chief Scott Skeldon said.

Earlier this month, Jerome Township trustees voted to put an additional 2.9-mill, five-year levy before voters to fund fire department operations. An ongoing levy of the same millage was defeated by less than 70 votes in November 2010.

"There's the chief, and four of us out here today. If one of us gets sick, we'd be down one more," firefighter Justin French said on Jan. 27. "Think about it like a basketball team that can only put four guys on the court."

French said the division responded to about 850 calls for assistance in 2010, which was an increase of about 80 runs from the previous year. The division provides coverage for an estimated 4,200 Jerome Township residents, along with about 1,500 Mill Creek residents (Jerome Township contracts with Mill Creek to provide service).

Skeldon said that depending on the time of day, those population figures can vary drastically.

"You have to remember that during the business day, in that commerce area of Route 33 and Route 42, a little city of its own emerges in the township," Skeldon said. "Those are all folks who often need our assistance."

Township trustee Robert Merkle said Jerome Township has seen funding for the fire division slowly dwindle for about five years. To deal with recent budget problems, all part-time firefighters (about 35-40, 20 of which worked shifts at the station) have been eliminated, freeing up about $143,000 in the township's budget. Currently, the township's 2011 budget projects a deficit of about $32,000, which will need to be balanced in order to provide enough surplus entering into 2012.

"There hasn't been a major pullback of revenue, but you have to have a carryover of at least three months," Merkle said. It costs roughly $350,000 to $400,000 to operate the fire division for three months.

"When things were going well and you have twice that (in carryover), how can you reasonably ask the voters for a levy?" Merkle said. "Unfortunately, tough economic times hit everybody, on the national and state level, at about the same time that we were seeing the need for a fire levy."

To deal with budget shortfalls in the past few years, the fire division froze salaries in 2009 and 2010, eliminated funds for purchasing or replacing equipment, increased health insurance deductibles, and retired two ambulances from service, because of increasing repair costs, according to figures provided by county fiscal officer Robert Caldwell. The township also recently enacted EMS billing, which is projected to bring in roughly $60,000 in 2011.

Skeldon said firefighters at the station apply for grants for new equipment (about $400,000 was received since 1993), and chip in on building repairs and other small expenses to deal with budget problems.

Firefighters also regularly perform building maintenance and much of their own training certification.

Merkle said township voters created the fire division in the early 1990s by an almost 2-to-1 vote.

"The problem is, well over half of the township has moved in since that continuing levy was approved," Merkle said. "In that time, the millage has rolled back from a starting 12.3 mills to under 5 mills now. Many of our residents have never voted for our fire service. It was just a service they assumed was there."

Skeldon and Merkle both said that some misconceptions during last year's election might have made the difference in voters' ultimate decision.

"There has been some confusion, that residents think we're being supplemented for (fire service) from Jerome Village already," Merkle said. "The township receives some funds from the development right now, but nothing to do with fire coverage."

Merkle said a fire station eventually will be constructed to service the massive planned development, and that Jerome Village developers have promised about $5.5-million for that construction. The township will be responsible for staffing the facility. These additions might not take place for another 10 to 20 years, however.

"Another thing is the EMS billing. It's always been a fear of mine that people won't call us for help because they think they can't afford it," Skeldon said. "That's not the case. Our residents will never see a bill. It goes to the insurance company, or Medicaid."

If voters approve the levy, no changes will take place at the division this year, Skeldon said. No revenue would be collected until 2012. Meanwhile, he said, the division will continue to seek grants to replace equipment and for training certification.

If approved, the levy would generate $588,835 annually, according to the county auditor's office. The township's fire budget projects a fund balance deficit beginning in FY 2015 of $84,000.