Liberty Township fire
Tide turning toward new fire levy's passage
Even opponents of failed Nov. 6 levy say February issue is a must as trustees go 'all in'
Liberty Township officials and residents are urging cooperation and an end to divisive rhetoric to pass an emergency fire levy headed for the February ballot.
Dozens of residents packed the room for the Nov. 19 meeting of the Liberty Township Board of Trustees to voice their desire to pass the new levy and keep the fire department running -- including the most outspoken critics of a 6.6-mill levy defeated earlier this month by a 102-vote margin.
Mike Gemperline campaigned against the issue as treasurer of the anti-levy group Friends of Liberty Township, but he said he would support the proposed five-year, 5.6-mill levy.
"If you had asked for a smaller increase (this year), I would have voted for it," he said, "but I had to campaign against the levy because a 42-percent tax increase was outrageous."
Some residents complained about what they saw as a botched campaign by the fire department, as well as decisions that left voters with just a single chance to pass the levy this year. Others said it's not worth dwelling on the past.
"It's my opinion that no one really knew what the consequences would be if they voted 'no,' " resident Larry Coolidge said. "I think people have seen it now -- they think it's for real, they know how tight this is.
"We need to get together and make sure the right information is put out there before the February levy goes on the ballot," he said.
Fire Chief Tim Jensen said the department is depending on public support.
"We have a very tired, mentally and physically drained department," he said. "We need to harness that community energy, and we need all of you to go out and talk to your neighbors."
If the February levy passes, it will generate about $7 million annually and cost homeowners about $171 annually per $100,000 in property value. Trustee Melanie Leneghan hopes to stretch the levy for six years, which would make it essentially a renewal of the current levy in terms of final cost to the taxpayer.
That means the fire department will have to shrink even if the levy passes because its budget will be smaller. The levy on the Nov. 6 ballot would have maintained services at their current level.
Leneghan is banking on voluntary resignations to lower staffing to a manageable level. Others, including Fiscal Officer Mark Gerber and Township Administrator Dave Anderson, are doubtful that forced layoffs can ultimately be avoided.
Either way, the township will have fewer firefighters on duty in the end and possibly longer response times, officials said.
"At 6.6 mills, we were able to provide the services we have today," Trustee Curt Sybert said. "But the community said, by 102 votes, that they don't want that quality of care anymore."
The trustees currently are preparing a budget that will lift the fire department through the spring.
Leneghan and Sybert have vocally supported a plan to forgo forced layoffs, at least for now. Trustees are expected to vote on the matter at a future meeting.
If all full-time staff members are retained, most of the department's reserve and capital funds will be quickly consumed. The department already suspended all 10 of its part-time employees and cut overtime hours to pad the budget.
Gerber said maintaining all current full-time staff through the spring is a big gamble.
"If the plan is to go full staffing through April 1, we're playing Texas Hold 'Em. We're going all in," he said.
"There's no accountability for unemployment payments, there's no accountability for the buyouts of comp time and vacation time, there's no accountability for sick leave that would be likely used up by people during this period. It doesn't fly financially."
It's unclear if those factors would diminish the township's chances of funding even a single-truck fire department if the February levy failed.
Leneghan countered that public support will boost the levy to an easy victory at the polls.
"I just do not see any risk of this levy failing, and that's why I'm willing to take this risk," she said.