Whether Liberty Township's 6-mill fire levy expiring this year should be replaced with a 6.75-mill levy or something smaller was debated during an April 16 public forum held by township trustees.

Whether Liberty Township's 6-mill fire levy expiring this year should be replaced with a 6.75-mill levy or something smaller was debated during an April 16 public forum held by township trustees.

Trustee Melanie Leneghan and Fire Chief Tim Jensen each gave an extended presentation.

Leneghan gave an analysis of fire department finances and said the department could maintain its efficiency and cut costs, in part, by using more part-time employees and fewer who are full-time. The department could meet its costs with a 4.67-mill levy, she said, but "in the spirit of compromise," she said a 5-mill levy would allow the department to implement changes slowly and smoothly.

Jensen has recommended replacing the 6-mill levy with a 6.75-mill, three-year levy. The department has operated with 6 mills for about a decade, he said. Trustees have said the township needs to put a new fire levy on the November ballot.

Jensen said the township has grown a great deal in 10 years and is "continuing slowly" to grow. Inflation has totaled a cumulative 25 percent during the years the department has operated on 6 mills, he said.

At the close of the meeting, Jensen said he would be willing to spend two more weeks discussing a compromise on the the size of a levy request. The trustees' next regularly scheduled meeting is May 7.

Nearly a dozen citizens spoke at the April 16 forum, most without identifying themselves, following the two presentations. A number praised the work done by firefighters, but said township taxes are too high.

Jensen said the annual cost of the 6-mill levy for a $400,000 home is now $572.68. If a 6.75-mill levy passed, the annual cost for the same home would be $826.88, he said.

Two audience members who spoke in support of 6.75 mills were former fire chief John Bernans and former township trustee Kim Cellar.

The department operates with three 24-hour shifts. Leneghan said replacing a full-time employee with a part-timer on each shift would save $600,000 a year, and reducing each shift from 15 to 14 firefighters would save $350,000 a year.

If each shift could be reduced to 13, that would save an additional $350,000 a year, she said.

In addition, she said, if one of the four officers (chief, assistant chief and two captains) at work each day were available to go on calls, that would save $120,000 a year.

"The only way you're going to convince me that your plan has merit is we're going to decrease response times," Trustee Curt Sybert said. "Because it does no good ... if you're saving $1 million a year, if on the bottom of one medical EMS note it says, 'Cardiac event. Could not resuscitate.'"

Leneghan said many reputable and effective fire departments operate with a "balanced combination" of part-time and full-time firefighters, and many schedule fewer personnel than does Liberty.

She said the fire department had a 2012 beginning balance of $1 million, and if a 6.75-mill levy passes, the surplus would grow to about $4.6 million at the end of three years.

Fiscal officer Mark Gerber said each year's beginning fire department surplus is spent by the following March. Because the township doesn't start receiving a year's levy funds until 10 weeks past Jan. 1, the previous year's carryover is needed to cover expenses during that 10 weeks, he said.

Once levy money starts coming in, Gerber said the township begins to accumulate a surplus to handle the first 10 weeks of the following year.

Leneghan said full-time firefighters get paid for up to 23 shifts each that they don't work. They receive up to 13 shifts of sick leave. Taxpayers cover 32 percent of a firefighter's salary in retirement payments, and 88 percent of a firefighter's health care premiums, she said.

Jensen said the fire department has grown because the township has grown. From 2000 to 2011, its population (which includes Powell) went from 15,429 to 28,396 and the number of homes went from 5,681 to more than 15,000.

He said only 7 percent of the property taxes paid on a $350,000 house in the township goes to the fire department.

Runs based on emergency medical services represent 68 percent of the department's calls, he said. The township's small number of building fires is proof the department's prevention efforts, combined with fire and building codes, are succeeding, according to Jensen.

Those building fires that do occur, he said, are "far more intense" than in years past because of modern construction materials, such as the increased use of particleboard that burns faster than solid wood.

The chief said the township's need for fire and rescue services is heightened by several factors, including its 491 commercial buildings, frequent freight trains, more than 390 ponds, two rivers and heavily used facilities such as the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Zoombezi Bay and the Boy Scouts' Camp Lazarus.