Olentangy Valley News

Much-discussed fire levies await townships' decisions

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Discussion on a pair of controversial Delaware County fire levies will come to a definitive end next week as residents of Liberty and Orange townships cast their votes.

Liberty Township

Voters will decide the fate of the Liberty Township Fire Department at the polls next week with an operating levy for the department set to appear on the ballot Tuesday, Nov. 6.

The proposed five-year, 6.6-mill levy would replace a 6-mill levy originally approved in 2002, currently being collected at 4.64 mills due to the growth of the township in the past decade.

The new levy would generate $8.46 million per year and cost homeowners $202.43 annually for each $100,000 in home value. The current levy generates $6 million and costs residents $143.17 yearly per $100,000 in home value.

Fire officials say approval of the levy will allow the township to preserve its staffing levels and continue to provide the current level of fire and emergency medical services.

Levy opponents say the fire department is overstaffed. They argue a leaner fire department would be more efficient and affordable and wouldn't hurt the quality of services, though Fire Chief Tim Jensen and other officials dispute that claim.

Opponents argue that the tax hike, which constitutes a 42 percent increase in the cost of fire and emergency medical services, is unreasonable.

But backers say residents should focus on the actual dollar amount of the increase: about an extra $15 per month for the owner of a $300,000 home.

They also point out the department hasn't asked for an increase in revenue since 2002. Since that time, the township's population has nearly doubled and the fire department's staffing levels have risen from six firefighters per shift to 15.

As a result of that growth, expenditures now outpace revenue sources by about $1 million and the fire department's cash reserves soon will be depleted.

If the levy fails, the future of the department is uncertain. The operating levy is the sole dedicated funding source for the township's fire and EMS services.

If funding dries up, officials warn it could potentially lead to layoffs and the dissolution of the fire department.

But levy opponents tout a backup plan they say could keep the department running, even if the levy fails. Trustee Melanie Leneghan says voters could vote down the 6.6-mill levy this month, setting the township up to place a more-affordable levy on the ballot in the spring.

Even assuming that levy passed, the township would have to borrow money to fund the department through the end of 2013. The plan also assumes the township would decrease staffing levels to fit within a smaller budget in the years ahead.

Levy backers, including trustees Mary Carducci and Curt Sybert, say Leneghan's plan is a dangerous gamble and would hurt the quality of the department regardless because it would cut staff.

If a second levy failed, it could force the township to rely on outside sources for fire and EMS services.

Delaware County EMS, which serves the entire county, could provide emergency medical services, but the exact level of services and other variables such as response times are uncertain.

A survey of fire departments in neighboring communities reveals the Liberty Township department's staffing ratios are about average for the region, and fire officials say the staffing levels adhere to national standards.

But opponents argue that other communities, such as Violet Township near Pickerington, answer significantly more emergency calls with staffing levels comparable to Liberty Township.

That claim is true, but levy backers counter that geographic differences, varying demographics and significantly lower property values of more-rural townships make such comparisons unreliable.

Orange Township

Voters in Orange Township will decide the fate of a three-year, 7.8-mill fire levy on the Nov. 6 ballot.

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 and would bring in around $7.93 million annually.

Fire Chief Tom Stewart and Assistant Chief Matt Noble say they 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 say. After that, there would be no money for a department unless the township appropriated it from other funds.

Township Trustees Rob Quigley and Debbie Taranto approved the 7.8-mill levy request in May, with Trustee Lisa Knapp voting against it. Knapp favored a 7.4-mill levy.

Knapp said she thinks 7.4 mills would have provided enough money for the department, but added the discussion is moot and the levy needs to be approved in its current form in order to continue the kind of service township residents are used to.

--with reports by Tom Sheehan

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