Olentangy Valley News

Leneghan urges fire-levy renewal for February ballot

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

If Liberty Township's fire levy is voted down next month, there is at least one way for the township to secure some revenue in 2013.

Township Trustee Melanie Leneghan, who opposes the levy and has said the fire department is overstaffed, is touting a backup plan to fund a somewhat slimmer department in 2013 by borrowing funds.

If the 6.6-mill levy headed for the Nov. 6 ballot is defeated, the township could hold a special election in February with a smaller levy on the ballot. If that levy passed, the township wouldn't begin to collect on the levy until January 2014 -- but it could secure notes based on anticipated revenue, essentially taking out a loan to keep the fire department running in 2013.

"There are different ways that we can create revenue," Leneghan said. "We can do a special election, and if we put up a reasonable renewal, we can get it passed.

"It seems like any time you put forth something that stands in the face of their argument, (levy proponents) just try to desperately shoot holes in it," she said.

In February, Leneghan would back a renewal of the existing fire levy, passed in 2007 at 6 mills but currently being collected at 4.64 mills. It generates $6 million annually; the proposed 6.6-mill levy set for the November ballot would generate $8.46 million per year.

Leneghan's plan doesn't change the fact that a levy will have to be passed at the ballot box at some point to keep local fire stations running, but it does it does offer a potential alternative to voters dissatisfied with the current level of spending.

The plan doesn't change the central question facing Liberty Township taxpayers this year: whether the department's staffing levels should be maintained or cut.

Built into the plan is the expectation and necessity of staffing cuts, since it would maintain the $6 million fire and EMS budget as is, despite warnings from Fire Chief Tim Jensen that cutting staff would diminish the quality of fire and emergency medical service in the township.

At current staffing levels, expenditures outpaced revenue by more than $1 million in 2012, and the fire department's reserves are dwindling. The fire department hasn't asked for increased funding in a decade, even as the township's population nearly doubled.

Township Administrator Dave Anderson said voters should keep in mind what the department has achieved in that time.

"We made it 10 years and still have $1 million in the bank; good people; better response times; people trained in virtually every discipline. We're educating the public and the number of fires is going down and down and down," Anderson said.

"What better track record, what more could they have done to make a value proposition to the voters?"

Levy proponents have said Leneghan's backup plan includes some potentially confounding variables.

Not the least of them is that it relies on voters to turn out and support a levy just months after voting one down. Trustees Curt Sybert and Mary Carducci have said they worry it could lead to confusion at the polls, and they point out that a second defeat would be devastating for the fire department. The fire levy is the department's sole dedicated source of revenue.

In fact, Sybert said the township would have no choice but to return to voters if the November levy fails, but he said encouraging the outcome could be "disastrous."

"It's always been a question of what level of service do you want," Sybert said. "I don't have any right but to stand up for the citizens and say we're going to give you the highest quality of care that we can until you tell us otherwise."

It also isn't clear exactly how far the $6 million budget would take the fire department in the coming years. Unemployment costs for any laid-off firefighters are one possible new expense that could eat into revenue.

Leneghan said she's confident staffing levels could be whittled down through attrition, by not filling spots left by firefighters who retire, move or quit. But Fiscal Officer Mark Gerber said layoffs would be unavoidable and costly -- up to $400 per week for each employee laid off.

And special elections aren't free. Delaware County Auditor George Kaitsa said it would cost the township between $35,000 and $41,000 to hold the February election. Leneghan said that's a small price to pay for a less-expensive fire department.

The levy on the Nov. 6 ballot would cost homeowners $202.43 annually for each $100,000 in home value. The current levy costs residents $143.17 yearly per $100,000 in home value.

If passed, the owner of a $300,000 home would pay about $15 more each month.

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