Orange Township trustees are fighting on two fronts to save the township fire department and have put layoffs on hold in the meantime.
Last week, trustees Rob Quigley, Lisa Knapp and Debbie Taranto approved going to the Ohio Supreme Court to try to keep a three-year, 7.5-mill fire levy on the Feb. 5 ballot. The Delaware County Board of Elections ruled the issue ineligible because it was delivered two minutes after the 4 p.m. deadline Nov. 7, and the paperwork was incomplete.
The February levy follows the defeat of a three-year, 7.8-mill levy in November. Knapp had favored a 7.4-mill levy for the fall ballot.
During a special meeting Friday, Dec. 7, trustees decided they would take $1.1 million from the general fund to help keep the department operating until May.
Money collected from an expired 5-mill fire levy runs out at the end of December, with only about a $1.5 million carryover expected into 2013.
If the levy is successful in February, or on any other ballot this year, taxes would not be collected until Jan. 1, 2014.
Pink slips handed out Dec. 6 to 22 full-time firefighters giving them a 30-day notice that they would be laid off will not be enforced now that trustees have taken action to help fund the department, Fire Chief Tom Stewart and Assistant Chief Matt Noble said after the Dec. 7 meeting.
The department has about 65 employees, including 42 full-time firefighters. It has an operating budget of about $6.8 million this year, but everything will be bare bones going into 2013, the chiefs said.
Fire Union President Eric Hollenbeck said after the meeting that firefighters are thankful for the support of the trustees and others. About 50 firefighters from Orange Township and other departments attended last week's meeting.
Although the board of elections, by a 4-0 vote, nixed the 7.5-mill levy from the ballot, Orange Township officials contend that email filings made at 3:52 and 3:53 p.m. Nov. 7 should have been sufficient. Ohio law is silent on the validity of email filings for election issues.
Jennifer Springer, an assistant Knox County prosecutor, has been retained as a special prosecutor to present the township's case to the Supreme Court.
She told trustees Dec. 7 that she would file an expedited motion this week that she hopes will be acted on within a couple of weeks.
"We would do this to try to move forward to put the levy on the ballot," Springer said. "Multiple courts use e-filings. The board of election has no policy."
Knapp expressed concern that the township would get only one chance to pass a levy in 2013.
"My fear is that if it is put on the February ballot and it fails, that's it," she said.
Fiscal Officer Joel Spitzer said it is possible that a substantial change in the ballot language may allow the levy on the ballot a second time in 2013, if necessary, although the township is still waiting for an opinion on that.
The trustees also heard an oftentimes emotional plea by former township trustee Dave Eby to pursue the appeal.
"Let's get three yeses for a change," he said. "I'm beyond exasperated with the problems this board has. ... Do it together (and) the voters will be behind it."
Knapp suggested the township pursue a five-year, 7-mill levy in May.
"It was very hasty that we put it on the (February) ballot ... waiting gives us more time to eliminate confusion. ... This would allow more time to determine long-range plans," she said.
Quigley disagreed with her, saying, "I'm ready to pursue it."
Knapp also said she was concerned the Supreme Court decision could take too long, given the election is less than two months away.
However, after Eby's remarks and further discussion, Knapp agreed to go along with the appeal.
Quigley and Taranto said the February election is important to try to get the fire department moving forward again.
"We can get loans as soon as the ballot issue passes," Taranto said. "We'll know in February if the residents of Orange Township are truly serious about the fire department."
Quigley said even though some general fund money will be used to help the fire department, he doesn't want residents to think that can continue indefinitely.
"This is a commitment to get us to May," he said. "This levy is a necessity."
Resident Bill Wiebell told trustees the previous two township boards failed to look to the future and reduced millage on fire levies as so-called tax savings. That has resulted in much-higher millage being needed now, he said.
Wiebell said the current board is not to blame.
"I love this township. ... It's our safety, our homes, our lives" at risk, he said.