Liberty Township residents will head to the polls Tuesday, Feb. 5, with the fate of the township's fire department in their hands.
The department's five-year, 5.6-mill levy will appear on the ballot Feb. 5. It's the only dedicated revenue stream to fund local emergency services.
If the issue is approved, the fire department will continue operations, albeit with a slimmer staff than in recent years.
If it is rejected, the township will not have another chance on the ballot. All fire department employees likely will be fired, both fire stations will be closed and the township's ability to continue to provide any fire or medical services is uncertain, officials said.
Township leaders pursued the new levy as a last resort after voters rejected a 6.6-mill levy in November by a slim margin.
If passed, the levy will generate $7 million annually for the fire department and cost homeowners about $171 annually per $100,000 in property value, starting in 2014.
At the Jan. 22 meeting of the Liberty Township Board of Trustees, Fire Chief Tim Jensen said the levy is necessary to keep the fire department running -- but he acknowledged it will have to be more efficient with a smaller budget.
"What we're being asked to do is condense down to our core services and focus on why we're here: to take 911 calls," Jensen said.
The trustees recently laid off 10 part-time firefighters and canceled a program to connect area seniors with local services. (See related story.)
They won't replace four full-timers who left last year, and this month, they issued layoff notices to all remaining firefighters in case the levy fails.
Unlike the defeated levy, which was the subject of a divisive campaign, the new levy is backed by all three township trustees and all members of Powell City Council.
It also has inspired a grass-roots resident campaign, which has seen support from some of the November levy's most-vocal critics.
It even was endorsed by the Columbus Zoo's Jack Hanna earlier this month, when he pleaded for voters to approve the levy in a video released online. The Liberty Township Fire Department is the primary source of fire and medical services for the zoo.
Early in-person voting continues from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Saturday, Feb. 2, at the Delaware County Board of Developmental Disabilities, 149 E. Orange Road in Lewis Center.
If the levy is approved, residents won't pay any taxes to fund the fire department this year. Legally, the township cannot begin to collect on the levy until January 2014.
That's why officials are taking steps to secure an advance on anticipated revenues if the levy passes to keep the fire department running through the end of 2013.
At the Jan. 22, meeting, trustees made final preparations, voting 3-0 to approve payment up to $10,000 to law firm Bricker & Eckler for assistance in issuing tax-anticipation notes.
Township Fiscal Officer Mark Gerber said legal counsel is necessary to ensure the notes are issued properly and the interest paid to the lender can be exempt from income taxes.
"It turns out there's an awful lot of paperwork involved in issuing tax-free notes," Gerber said. "The way through all these dos and don'ts is to have proper counsel."
Trustee Curt Sybert added: "This is a very specialized practice of the law and I don't find (the price) exorbitant."
Gerber said he anticipates the interest rate on the notes to be between 2.75 percent and 3 percent.