Voters in Orange Township will almost certainly decide the fate of a three-year, 7.8-mill fire levy on the Nov. 6 ballot before they know what kind of new contract township firefighters will sign.
Negotiations between the township and the firefighters union have not yet begun. The current three-year pact expires at the end of the year.
Fire department officials said Monday, Sept. 24, they had been told the union plans to file paperwork with the state by the end of the week to begin the negotiation process.
The current contract provided raises of 11 percent over its three years. Full-time firefighters at the top of the scale earn $63,000 annually. The township also pays the pension pickup for those firefighters. All full-time township employees receive free health coverage.
Currently, there are 43 full-time firefighters and 17 part-timers out of a staff of about 67.
Fire Chief Tom Stewart and Assistant Chief Matt Noble said it is impossible to know how negotiations will go, but they are hopeful for a fair outcome for everyone. The levy, if approved, would raise an estimated $7.93 million a year and keep the department operating at current levels with a little room to grow.
"We're pretty confident in saying that our personnel are very aware of the economic issues" facing the township and its residents, Noble said. "I think they know it's not a blank check" if the levy passes.
The department expects to spend about $6.8 million this year on operating costs, with most going for salaries and benefits. Another $1 million is set aside for capital costs, such as the purchase of fire trucks.
However, such high-cost expenditures have been put on hold the past few years, officials said.
Stewart and Noble expect the department to have a carryover of about $1.2 million into 2013. That is enough to cover expenses for the first three months of the year, they said. After that, there would be no money for a department unless the township appropriated it from other funds.
Stewart said a political action committee called Citizens for Fire and EMS Protection has been formed by firefighters and residents to promote the levy.
No PAC was formed three years ago when the current 5-mill levy was approved.
"The last levy was pretty low-key," he said, "but we've had PACs in the past."
Township Trustee Debbie Taranto said in an email to ThisWeek that efforts to provide information to the public are ongoing.
"The PAC has been gearing up and has had one meeting, inviting the boards of HOAs (homeowners associations) in Orange Township for an informational meeting on the levy on Sept. 12," she said.
Representatives from seven organizations attended, she said.
"The PAC is getting ready to start a door-to-door campaign and has informational pieces to pass out and yard signs available," Taranto added.
Trustee Rob Quigley said in an email that information about the fire levy also has been printed in the past two township newsletters.
Trustee discussions earlier this year about a fire levy turned contentious over how much to ask for from residents.
Quigley and Taranto approved the 7.8-mill levy in May with Trustee Lisa Knapp voting against it. She favored a 7.4-mill levy, estimated to raise about $7.5 million a year..
Knapp said in an email she thinks 7.4 mills would have provided enough money for the department but that the vote over a millage amount is moot now. "The bottom line is that we do need the levy to pass in order to continue to provide the superb service that our residents expect and we have just one shot at it," she said.
"If the levy fails, we will not have a fire department. It would be senseless at this point for me not to support the levy, so I am supporting it."
She also said she supports efforts by the township to provide information to the public and encourages residents to ask questions of township officials and fire officials.
In 2011, the fire department responded to 2,141 emergency calls, of which about 55 percent were EMS calls. The township has about 27,000 residents.
Residents currently pay $153 annually per $100,000 of property valuation. The 7.8-mill levy would raise that amount to about $240 per $100,000 of property valuation.