An emergency levy to keep the Liberty Township Fire Department running will appear on a special election ballot Feb. 5.
Township officials scrambled Nov. 7 to draft and approve a five-year, 5.6-mill levy for the first election date in 2013 after voters rejected a 6.6-mill levy on the Nov. 6 ballot by a 102-vote margin
If the new levy passes it will generate about $7 million annually and cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $171 per year -- about $28 more than the current levy, which expires Jan. 1.
The new levy would still raise taxes, but less so than the defeated 6.6-mill levy, which would have generated $8.46 million annually and cost homeowners $202 a year for each $100,000 in home value.
Regardless, if the February issue fails the township will no longer have the funds to support any fire or emergency medical services at all.
"If it goes down on Feb. 5 we'll be out of business for good," said township Trustee Curt Sybert at the Nov. 7 meeting of the Liberty Board of Trustees.
All three township trustees support the new issue, including Trustee Melanie Leneghan, who vigorously opposed the defeated levy.
Even if the issue passes, the township will have to borrow funds to keep the fire department running through the end of 2013. Collection of any property tax passed next year would not begin until Jan. 1, 2014.
Layoffs and even the temporary closure of the Sawmill Parkway fire station are possibilities in the interim between now and Feb. 5, according to Fire Chief Tim Jensen.
At the Nov. 7 meeting, Jensen said a decision on whether or not to temporarily close fire station 322 would probably be made "within the next week."
He said the measure might be necessary to stretch reserve dollars until a permanent source of income can be reestablished.
"It's still very early, but nothing's off the table. I can't guarantee you the same level of staffing that you enjoy today," Jensen told a concerned resident at the board meeting.
Reductions could also lead to longer response times, Jensen said.
He added he's "embarrassed" and "stunned" by the failure of the levy and the divisive debate that drove the outcome.
"My fire department has been used as a political football and a game, and last night I watched our levy slip away."
Staffing levels and the fate of the Sawmill Parkway station depend in part on new negotiations with fire department employees, with salary and benefits concessions potentially to come, according to township Fiscal Officer Mark Gerber.
Dozens of residents packed into the trustees' meeting room at the Liberty Road fire station Nov. 7 to voice outrage and fear over the failure of the levy.
Powell resident Marie Follmer gave an emotional plea for the retention of services. She said her 3-year-old daughter was born with half a lung, a compromised trachea and other conditions, and said the fire department has gone above and beyond to save her daughter in frequent medical emergencies.
"I don't know if you've ever had to call the department for one of your children. It's easy when you're just looking at taxes. But when it's your child, and these guys come day and night, 4 o'clock in the morning, 50 times, saving her."
"These guys were there for her. Not just her, but me. This is traumatic. This is real life. This is our community and I cannot believe you let this happen."
Others worried that the levy's failure could lead to a hike in the cost of homeowner's insurance, offsetting any savings for residents, a possibility Gerber has raised in the past.
Karl Salmon was the only resident to speak in support of the levy's defeat.
"This isn't about the firemen, who we have a lot of respect for. We in this township are tired of taxes that are out of control."
"The taxpayers voted it down because they didn't believe the township had exercised enough effort in finding alternatives," Salmon said.