Ind. townships consider forming joint fire territory

Officials from New Carlisle, Olive Township and LaPorte County's Hudson Township are considering whether to form a territory that would be led by full-time staff

By Ted Booker
South Bend Tribune

NEW CARLISLE, Ind. — Last July, Linda Antonucci was driving down U.S. 2 here when her car sideswiped a Mustang convertible.

She said the convertible, which had three people inside, rolled over. The New Carlisle Fire Department was dispatched to the scene, but it took 11 minutes for a firetruck to arrive from the station, which was 3 miles away. Only one firefighter was inside the truck.

Although no one was trapped under the convertible and there were no injuries, Antonucci said "it could have been much worse." She and other residents worry that not enough volunteer firefighters are responding to emergencies such as fires and car accidents.

To address that dilemma, officials from New Carlisle, Olive Township and LaPorte County's Hudson Township are considering whether to form a fire territory that would be led by full-time employees instead of volunteers.

The volunteer fire department now serves those three areas, but some officials think it isn't equipped to get the job done properly. They've pointed out that the region's population is expected to grow in the coming years and that more businesses are anticipated in the industrial area to the east of New Carlisle.

On Wednesday, the Town Council voted 3-2 to begin a formal process to consider launching the territory. The process will include public meetings on Feb. 27, March 15 and March 29, but the times and locations haven't yet been set.

To launch the fire territory, the Town Council, Olive Township Board and Hudson Township Board would need to decide to do so by the end of March. If the territory is approved, it would be launched at the start of 2019.

The territory would allow a new fire tax to be established that would be paid by residents across the three areas. The three local governments are each close to reaching their maximum fire tax levies allowed by the state, but the new territory would allow significantly more taxes to be raised. Increasing fire taxes, however, could reduce property taxes that benefit local schools and other taxing entities. That's because state-mandated property tax caps limit how much taxes residents pay.

During Wednesday's meeting, Town Council members expressed mixed views about the plan. Town Council President Ken Carter thinks more time is needed to understand how the fire territory would impact taxpayers and the town's budget.

"I'm not in favor of proceeding at this time because there are too many questions by too many people," he said. "Fortunately we have a wonderful volunteer fire department, and the taxes are not what they could be with this fire territory. I would like to revisit this in the fall."

Town Council member Aaron Rypma thinks that the public deserves to know the implications of launching the fire district.

"A lot of questions aren't answered yet, and in my opinion that's all the more reason to continue and allow the public to have a say in what's going on," Rypma said.

The town has already paid for studies to assess the need for a fire territory and its potential impact on taxpayers. The plan for the territory calls for having a total budget of more than $2 million in 2019.

New Carlisle EMS Chief Josh Schweizer, who also serves as the fire department's volunteer assistant chief, helped develop the plan for the territory. He said the plan calls for hiring 20 employees, along with buying gear and other equipment for firefighters.

Schweizer said employees would include a fire chief, assistant fire chief and 12 firefighters. Three paramedics and three emergency medical technicians also would be hired, joining the seven existing employees in the EMS department.

Schweizer thinks the territory is needed to keep the public safe. The fire department now has 22 volunteers, he said, but often not enough of them respond to emergencies. He thinks more paid staff members would alleviate the problem.

"Our volunteerism is down and our call volume is going up, and we need to start looking at a permanent solution," he said. "In seven years, we've increased our call volume by 71 percent."

Copyright 2018 South Bend Tribune

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