Olentangy Valley News

Orange Township readies firefighter pink slips

Snafu may keep levy off ballot till May; township trustees rummaging for funding ideas

By Tom Sheehan
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During the past week, Orange Township officials have taken a procedural step to begin the notification process to lay off as many as half the township’s firefighters and also are exploring ways to raise or save money for the cash-strapped township.

At a special meeting Friday, Nov. 30, township trustees voted 2-1 to authorize the required 30-day layoff notification process to relieve up to 22 firefighters of their jobs.

Trustees Rob Quigley and Debbie Taranto voted to begin the process.

Trustee Lisa Knapp opposed it, later saying she hoped to keep layoffs, if any, to a minimum.

“I don’t think we need to lay off any more than nine firefighters at this point,” she said after the meeting. “We’re going to give notice to 22 firefighters. I think it’s a scare tactic.”

Quigley said during the meeting that just because the process has begun, it doesn’t mean anybody will be laid off if a plan is developed to keep the 65-member department, which includes 42 full-time firefighters, intact.

As of Monday, Dec. 3, layoff notices had yet to be sent out to any firefighters with the least seniority. Nearly all of the options previously presented by the fire chief and assistant chief involved closing the oldest of the two fire stations, located at South Old State and Orange roads.

“There’s a lot we’re looking at,” Quigley said after the Nov. 30 meeting. “How do you fund two fire stations with no money coming in?”

A three-year, 7.8-mill levy was turned down last month, with 52 percent of voters saying “no.” Collections on the current 5-mill levy end Dec. 31, with fire officials estimating a carryover into 2013 of about $1.5 million.

Trustees have placed a three-year, 7.5-mill levy on the special election ballot for Feb. 5, but that has run into a stumbling block.

After a hastily called emergency meeting Nov. 7, township officials missed the 4 p.m. filing deadline that day for the special election by two minutes. An email filing also was sent to the Delaware County Board of Elections at 3:52 p.m. Nov. 7, but Ohio law does not address the validity of email filings for elections.

The county board of elections will meet today, Dec. 6, to decide if the ballot issue can stay on in February.

At the Nov. 30 meeting, Knapp proposed withdrawing the February levy and placing a five-year, 7-mill levy on the May 2013 ballot, which could allow more time to consider the options and educate the public.

Regardless of when in 2013 a levy is passed, the township cannot collect any taxes until 2014. The fire department has an operating budget of $6.8 million this year, so money must be found somewhere to help keep the department running in 2013 even if staffing cuts are made.

At the Nov. 30 meeting, and again at the trustees’ regular meeting Monday, Dec. 3, officials discussed the possibility of billing for fire and EMS runs when patients are taken to a hospital.

Knapp said she has been studying the idea for at least three weeks and proposes the township should begin such billing as soon as possible.

She noted most Franklin County townships use EMS billing and said Orange Township could earn as much as $400,000 a year by billing insurance companies. Township residents would not be charged at any point for EMS service by the township.

“I can’t believe we haven’t done this before,” she said. “I don’t see any downside.”

Knapp asked for a consensus to move forward in the process to begin the billing.

However, other township officials disagreed. Assistant Fire Chief Matt Noble said while it’s a good idea, he doesn’t think it will bring in as much money – $280,000 to $330,000 a year, he said. Any money that comes in would just be a revenue stream for the fire department and would not be enough to significantly help its budget, he said.

Carl Reedy of MED3000, a Miamisburg EMS billing company, told trustees Dec. 3 there usually is a 45- to 60-day time period before revenue starts coming in once the process is started. He said EMS billing has worked well in many communities with little confusion on the part of residents.

Others in an audience of mostly firefighters and their families seemed to agree the idea could work but worried it would be a distraction to voters and lead to levy failure next year. Quigley said while this could be a way to increase revenue, it is not something to rely on for 2013.

Fiscal Officer Joel Spitzer added EMS billing “should not even come into consideration in levy discussions.”

Quigley said the county EMS is looking at starting the same type of billing. He wants to wait before proceeding to see if the township can piggyback onto the county if it moves forward with such a process and contracts with a vendor.

Knapp said she was worried that would delay collections for at least another year and said she wasn’t willing to wait much longer to implement EMS billing, adding, “We’re losing a thousand dollars a day.”

She urged the board to move forward at its next meeting.

Quigley balked at that suggestion.

“I’d like to do this with the county,” he said. “I’m going to talk to the (county) commissioners.”

Contract with sheriff’s office mulled

Delaware County Sheriff Russ Martin attended the Nov. 30 special meeting and talked to trustees about the township's contract with the county to provide eight deputies to patrol the township.

That contract costs about $500,000 a year with the money being taken from the township's general fund. A 0.5-mill police levy failed in November 2010 and officials have not placed another levy on the ballot since then.

The current contract expires Dec. 31, but automatically renews if neither party wants to change it. A six-month notification process is required for any changes to the contract.

Quigley mentioned at the meeting the possibility of reducing the number of deputies, perhaps to four.

While Martin and township officials will continue to have discussions, Martin said he thinks the current contract works well.

"Obviously, you're in a crisis situation right now" with the fire department … I'm not here to compete with your fire department.

It's obvious the township is at a crossroads."

Martin, however, said the township is getting a good return on its investment in contract deputies. It's one of the busiest areas of the county, with 10,700 calls for service as of November, he said.

"I hope you will honor the contract and keep it for 2013," the sheriff said. "I'm certainly willing to come back to the table."

Knapp said by not having gone back to the voters with a new police levy, the township is losing money each year by paying for contract deputies.

"It's draining our general fund," she said.

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