Without fire levy, 'majority of folks would be laid off'
Drastic changes could be in store for the Liberty Township Fire Department if an operating levy is defeated at the polls in November.
If voters approve the issue, the township would begin to collect on the levy in January.
But if the five-year, 6.6-mill levy is voted down, the township will lose its sole revenue stream to fund emergency services for more than a year. The current 6-mill levy is set to expire this year.
In that case, revenues for emergency services would quickly dry up. Collection on a levy passed at any time in 2013 would not begin until January 2014, the start of the next calendar year.
Township officials disagree on what would be the best contingency plan to keep emergency services available, but all agree big changes would be in store if the levy fails.
Trustee Melanie Leneghan, who opposes the levy, said the township could make do by scaling back staffing and relying on Dela-ware County for emergency medical services during 2013.
But Fire Chief Tim Jensen is pessimistic about the level of services that could be sustained without continued funding for the township's own fire and EMS department.
"There would be no funding to pay for peoples' salaries," he said. "The majority of folks would be laid off."
Surplus funds currently allocated for capital expenses, such as the replacement of aging vehicles, could be redirected to cover personnel.
But township Fiscal Officer Mark Gerber said there isn't enough to sustain a department with the current level of services for more than a few months.
Jensen said one of the department's medic vehicles already is two years past its life expectancy.
Delaware County Emergency Medical Services could serve Liberty Township residents if the township can't maintain its own staff. A half-percent sales tax in the township already helps to fund Delaware County EMS, which serves the whole county.
That solution could increase response times, as ambulances would be dispatched from farther away, though there is a possibility that Delaware County EMS staff could operate semi-permanently out of the Liberty Township fire station, officials said.
Depending on the level of fire staffing that could be sustained with existing funds, the township would have to contract with a neighboring municipality to provide fire services, Jensen said.
"In that case, the community would not have nearly the same level of service and responsiveness," he said.
Unemployment costs for laid-off firefighters would be another major expense if the levy fails. It could cost up to $400 per week for each employee laid off, Gerber said. The department has about 50 employees.
Still, Leneghan said cutting back is an acceptable temporary solution until a levy can be passed at a lower millage.
She said the township could make it through 2013 by relying on Delaware County EMS, paying for a stripped-down firefighting force with the department's budget surplus, and holding off on vehicle replacement.
"I'm not saying that's the perfect model, but right now, in these days, people just can't afford any more taxes," Leneghan said.
Jensen has said repeatedly that changing staffing levels would lower the quality of the township's emergency services.
Rebuilding the fire department's staff back to current standards also would be time-consuming and expensive, Gerber said.
"(Leneghan) argues against any tax increase, but what she's really arguing against is the safety of the community," he said.
The newly proposed property tax levy would replace a levy currently being collected at 4.64 mills, which expires this year.
If approved Nov. 6, it would generate $8.46 million per year and cost homeowners $202.43 annually for each $100,000 in home value -- an increase of 42 percent over the current levy, which costs residents $143.17 yearly per $100,000 in home value.
But it's just a 10 percent increase from what originally was being collected on the 6-mill levy, approved by voters in 2002. That levy currently is being collected at a lower effective rate due to rising property values in the township.