Prairie Township residents will be asked to approve a 3.61-mill permanent fire levy this spring.

Trustees on Jan. 17 unanimously approved putting the issue before township voters on the May 8 ballot.

If approved, the levy will cost homeowners $126.35 per every $100,000 in home value, according to Tracy Hatmaker, township administrator. The levy will be collected starting in 2019.

Without the additional funding, the department will be operating "in the red" in about two years, fire Chief Chris Snyder said.

"We try to operate the department in a fiscally responsible manner. Our expenses have now reached a point that they're exceeding our revenue," he said.

The Prairie Township Fire Department has a $5 million annual budget and operates two fire stations, with an average of more than 6,000 calls for service each year, according to Snyder. More than half of those calls are EMS runs for medical treatment, he said.

Snyder said the department has been focused on more than just firefighting for the last several years. He points to the Reading with a Firefighter program held during the summer, visits to area schools and a recent three-year initiative that saw firefighters visit nearly 6,000 single-family homes in Prairie Township to install and inspect smoke detectors.

"My hope is that our residents feel that we have been fiscally responsible," Snyder said. "What we're hoping is that they see us more as a community partner than just another government entity.

"We're trying to reach our residents in some form or another, whether they are using our services or not."

Township officials said the levy is expected to generate an additional $1.1 million annually that would allow the fire department to maintain its current level of services to residents.

The additional funds also would allow Snyder to implement the department's continuous improvement plan, which has been a goal for several years.

The plan is aimed at tracking annual expenses for rolling inventory (fire trucks and other vehicles) and larger equipment purchases such as turnout gear for firefighters. Snyder said this would allow the department to better predict when to replace aging inventory and plan for major purchases.

However, he said, the department has never had the funding needed to start saving for future needs. For example, he said, the department ladder truck is 18 years old and will likely need to be replaced within the next three years, at an estimated cost close to $1 million.

"We've got a plan that addresses our capital needs now, but we've never had the funding in place that has allowed us to address any type of future replacement of a ladder truck," Snyder said.

If approved, the levy is expected to fund the department for at least six to eight years, Hatmaker said.

The fire department has not asked the voters for additional funding since 2010, when voters approved a levy that replaced older ones from the 1990s, Hatmaker said. The May 8 levy will be permanent, which he said allows the township to be more fiscally responsible when it comes to long-range planning.

"The need is going to be permanent, so we feel that the levy should be permanent," Hatmaker said.