Fire levy on ballot; suddenly, it's crunchtime
Supreme Court sides with Orange Township; now leaders hope to get word out quickly on Feb. 5 issue
The next three weeks will be crucial for the financially strapped Orange Township Fire Department now that the Ohio Supreme Court has reversed a decision to keep a three-year, 7.5-mill fire levy off the Feb. 5 special election ballot.
Township trustees said in emails that while the court's decision last week is good news, it is important now to fully inform the residents about the levy, which would raise an estimated $7.6 million a year if passed.
It would cost homeowners about $230 a year per $100,000 in property value.
"I am pleased with the court's decision," said Trustee Chairman Rob Quigley. "Our next step is making sure the public is aware of the levy being on the ballot."
Trustees Lisa Knapp and Debbie Taranto agreed, but noted time is short.
"Given all the recent confusion and issues surrounding the fire levy, I think it will be difficult for people to get all the facts and then make an educated decision within such a short time," Knapp said.
"This decision has given us an opportunity ... to improve our communications with the residents of Orange Township," Taranto said.
"While the ruling is important to us, ultimately it will be up to the voters to decide if they want the fire department."
The Delaware County Board of Elections unanimously ruled the issue off the ballot last month, saying the hand-delivered filing missed the 4 p.m. Nov. 7 deadline by two minutes. Elections officials also said the filing was incomplete.
The filing for the new levy was made one day after a three-year, 7.8-mill levy failed by 468 votes in the general election. That levy would have replaced a 5-mill levy that expired at the end of 2012.
Township officials contended two email filings made just before the Nov. 7 deadline were complete and should have been sufficient. Ohio law is silent on email filings regarding election issues. The Delaware County Board of Elections has no policy on electronic filings.
Orange Township went to the Supreme Court on Dec. 12 seeking to have the ruling reversed. The court, in a 4-3 decision Friday, Jan. 11, sided with the township.
"We're glad this issue is resolved and we can move forward," board of elections Director Karla Herron said earlier this week.
She said the Ohio Secretary of State has approved the ballot language for the issue and that absentee ballots were set to be mailed by Tuesday, Jan. 15. The special election will cost Orange Township about $40,000, she added.
In the decision, which was expedited because it was an election issue, Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Judith Ann Lanzinger and Sharon L. Kennedy sided with the township. Justices Terrence O'Donnell, Judith L. French and William E. O'Neill dissented.
"The board of elections abused its discretion by refusing to place the levy on the ballot," the majority ruling said.
"In this case, the board of trustees attempted to place on the ballot a levy that it represents is necessary to provide safety services to its community," the ruling said. "The fact that the resolution was time-stamped two minutes late kept no citizen from becoming familiar with the proposed levy and harmed no one's rights."
The majority opinion also stated the ruling applies only to Orange Township and does not mean all other electronic filings, if submitted anywhere in the state, necessarily would meet statutory requirements.
"The people of Orange Township should have the opportunity to determine whether the cuts to safety services that would occur without a levy are acceptable," the ruling said.
O'Donnell wrote in a dissenting opinion that "there is no rationale for this court's adoption of a standard to permit email filings with the board of elections merely because the Delaware County Board of Elections has no rule in place precluding filing by electronic means.
"In my view, an email filing should be rejected where no rule or statute expressly authorizes filing by electronic means. The traditional means of filing is the physical delivery of a document to the appropriate office in a timely fashion."
In a related issue, both the township's firefighters' union and trustees have reached a tentative labor agreement estimated by officials to save the township $1.3 million, or $455,000 annually, over the life of the contract. The contract would be voided if the levy fails.
Chief Tom Stewart and Assistant Chief Matt Noble have released few details of the tentative pact, but said this week that since neither side has signed it yet, no full disclosure of contract terms can be provided.
The agreement would freeze salaries at 2012 levels and have firefighters pick up their full pension portion of 12.25 percent by the end of the contract.
However, Stewart and Noble acknowledged this week the contract also includes an exchange for the pension concession.
"I guess you could say it's a raise," Stewart said.
Both he and Noble said they could not discuss amounts or any other specific details of the agreement.
The department, which has about 45 full-time firefighters, is funded through May with a $1.5 million cash carryover and borrowing from the general fund. If the levy is approved, no taxes could be collected until 2014.
"I don't like to talk about failure," Taranto said of the levy. "If it fails ... then the fire department will close."
Knapp said a levy failure concerns her, too.
"The trustees need to immediately have discussions to ensure that we have a plan in place in the event of a levy failure, unlike the last time, when any talk of a levy failure was considered to be negative," she said. "As a result, there was scrambling for a new plan the day after the (Nov. 6) failure."