Firefighters, residents press Orange leaders for solutions
Trustees may lay off staffers, close fire station
Orange Township officials likely will decide Monday, Nov. 26, on what direction to take the township fire department following the failure of a three-year, 7.8-mill levy on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Board Chairman Rob Quigley announced this week a special meeting is expected to be held at 7 p.m. Nov. 26 to discuss various options.
Fire Chief Tom Stewart and Assistant Chief Matt Noble previously have said laying off 22 full-time firefighters, all 10 part-time firefighters and closing the oldest of the two fire stations on South Old State Road are possibilities.
During a lengthy discussion in the public-comment portion of the regular trustees’ meeting Monday, Nov. 19, emotions ran high in a packed meeting room that included a number of firefighters.
“I’m here to support these guys,” said Aaron Rucker, a Columbus firefighter who lives in Orange Township.
He said perception had a lot to do with why the levy failed and challenged trustees to do a better job informing the public of what would happen with no money for the department.
“I would personally like to see a game plan by you guys,” he told trustees. “What’s the game plan?”
Teresa Jones, whose father and husband combined for 53 years on the Orange Township Fire Department in the past, when it was composed of volunteers, told township officials she could not understand how the levy could fail.
“I’m imploring you to work to find a solution,” she said.
Both Jones, Rucker and a couple of other residents chastised Quigley and Trustees Debbie Taranto and Lisa Knapp for in-fighting and bickering this year on various topics. Quigley was elected in 2009 and Taranto and Knapp in 2011.
“Put your personal agendas aside and get the job done,” Jones said.
Although the three trustees split 2-1 last summer on putting the 7.8-mill levy on the Nov. 6 ballot, with Knapp favoring a 7.4-mill levy, they did agree the day after the election to place a three-year, 7.5-mill levy on the Feb. 5 special election ballot.
Knapp wanted a 7-mill levy for the special election but agreed to go with the 7.5 mills to show unity.
“I don’t want to see either station closed (or layoffs),” Knapp said during the Nov. 19 discussion. “(The fire departrment is) more important than road improvements or parks.”
Quigley said he supports the fire department and added township officials are looking at all options.
Taranto also said, “We’re going to do all we can to not go backwards.”
Resident William Miller said, “We have to have police protection. We have to have fire protection. I don’t see why we have to have park trails ahead of the fire department. Our insurance (rates) are going to quadruple” without a fire department.
Resident Bob Ruhlman said he opposed the 7.8-mill levy, which would have raised about $7.9 million a year, because it was too big.
He asked why general fund money, which he said the township estimates at $12 million, including $6 million in some funds for future road improvements, can’t be used to help the fire department during 2013.
Even if the levy passes in the special election, no collections can be made until 2014. The township could try to borrow money.
“I never want anybody to lose their jobs,” Ruhlman said. But the large levy that lost Nov. 6 put all the burden on taxpayers, he added.
Resident Kirby Nielson agreed.
“I think the taxpayers have a way of sending a message,” he said. “I think they sent a message as to the amount. What you were asking for was a little too high.”
Nielson also questioned whether the firefighters’ union would make concessions in its new contract. The current three-year agreement runs out Dec. 31.
Quigley said township officials could not discuss labor negotiations.
However, Fire Union President Eric Hollenbeck said, “We would like to bring this (contract) through as quickly as possible. We know we have to make concessions.”
Resident Matt Scheibeck urged township officials to use general fund money – or any available money – to carry the department through 2013.
“The levy was too big,” he said. “Where can we cut costs? A lot of it comes back to union negotiations.”
The fire department expects to spend about $6.8 million this year and has another $1 million set aside for capital expenditures, such as fire truck purchases. The elimination of capital expenditures is among the cutbacks already on the table for the fire department.
The department, which has 42 full-timers, 10 part-timers, a chief, an assistant and several others among a staff of about 65, expects to have a $1.5 million carryover into 2013. Previously, that amount was estimated at $1.2 million.
Stewart and Noble have said that if the department is reduced by about half, that would save an estimated $190,000 a month. About $60,000 of that would have to be used for unemployment benefits for laid-off staff.
Also at the Nov. 19 meeting:
• Trustees suspended firefighter Alan Hager for seven work days for conduct unbecoming a firefighter.
Stewart had previously said Hager violated department rules while off-duty. The chief would not discuss Nov. 19 what Hager did.
• Trustees approved a tobacco-free environment in township parks. The Delaware County Health Department will provide signs that read “Thank You For Not Smoking” for use in the parks.
Knapp credited Len Fisher, chairman of the Township Community Parks Board, for spearheading the no-smoking effort.
“I think this is very important” as a way to discourage smoking and to promote that it is a dangerous health issue, especially for teens, Knapp said.