Ind. township fire departments 'need people,' officials tell tax council

Fire departments outside of metro areas struggle to maintain personnel due to lack of funding

By Megan Banta

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Fire departments that service unincorporated areas of the county are requesting funds from potential future income tax revenues that largely would pay for more personnel.

“Fire service, as a whole, outside the city limits is in dire need of personnel,” Ellettsville Fire Department Chief Mike Cornman told a committee of the Monroe County Income Tax Council on Monday night, speaking on behalf of Richland Township, which his department serves.

That’s true in Bean Blossom Township, where the fire department is 100 percent run by volunteers.

“They do the very best they can, but there’s no one at the station during the day,” Bean Blossom Township Trustee Pam Cook said, adding that means the burden falls on neighboring townships.

Cook said she’s been looking for funding for part-time positions to staff the department during daytime hours since she took office in 2013, and hasn’t yet been successful in getting funds.

With the township at its maximum tax levy, revenues from a new public safety option income tax seem to be the only solution, she said.

The situation is the same in Benton Township, where officials have successfully obtained grants for equipment in the past, but haven’t found sustainable funding for personnel.

And in Bloomington Township, officials are looking for funding for a coordinator for the department’s fire prevention and public education program first and foremost, with a secondary priority of funds for a dedicated vehicle to tow the trailer that holds the program’s equipment.

Township Trustee Lillian Henegar said the addition of the coordinator position would free up current staff time and allow more proactive measures.

The primary concern in Indian Creek Township is response time.

Having more paid staff would mean getting out of the door immediately after a call rather than it taking six to seven minutes, said Dave Parsons, president of the board for Indian Creek Fire Fighters Inc., with which the township contracts for fire service.

Parsons said the department currently has someone staffing the fire houses 25 hours per week, and that officials would like to expand that capability by adding another part-time staffer.

Perry-Clear Creek Fire Department is looking to increase its firefighter and emergency medical technician personnel by six, a move that would significantly increase its personnel budget — which already is 83 percent of overall expenses.

“We don’t have a whole lot of room to fudge there to get the extra personnel,” department Chief Dustin Dillard said.

That department also is looking to hire three people who could focus on its public education program while not on an emergency call.

In Richland Township, the biggest priority also is more personnel.

Cornman said of the requests township officials have put forward, he would prioritize the one for six part-time staff members, saying he needs people.

Van Buren Township Trustee Rita Barrow echoed that.

“Everybody has already said exactly what I need,” she said. “We need people.”

Barrow’s primary concern is retention — she wants to bring salaries up in order to be competitive and stop losing firefighters who can go somewhere else and make anywhere from $10,000 to $12,000 more per year.

One township was different from the others, though.

“I am the minority,” Washington Township Trustee Barb Ooley said. “I’m not asking for funds for people. I’m asking for funds because I need a fire station.”

That’s become a need because Interstate 69 is about to cut the township in half and leave only two roads on which the Bloomington Township Fire Department, which services Washington Township, can cross the interstate.

Although the two townships have streamlined service by creating the Northern Monroe County Fire Protection Territory, there still isn’t a station in the western portion of the township.

Ooley and other officials are requesting $50,000 to acquire property and start developing the additional station.

The rural fire departments are asking for about $1.9 million, combined, in public safety income tax revenue to help with operations on behalf of the townships; that money would come out of the total remaining once 30 percent of revenues go to help fund operations for the county’s combined dispatch center.

But at least one of the entities that would automatically receive revenue once dispatch funds come off the top doesn’t think the income tax council should approve any requests at this time.

“We believe that the funding should be continued to be split the way that it’s currently allocated,” City Controller Jeff Underwood said.

That would mean that the estimated $6.9 million that would remain after funds were taken off the top for dispatch would be allocated to Bloomington, Monroe County, Ellettsville and Stinesville.

Underwood said those entities then could award money to townships and other units as they see fit, rather than the income tax council doing the allocating.

Bloomington’s police and fire chiefs talked about extensive lists of capital needs and the fact that call numbers for outlying entities don’t come close to touching the number of runs city agencies do each year.

There also are extensive needs in Monroe County agencies and those that service Ellettsville and Stinesville, though the latter isn’t slated to receive many funds anyway.

These requests also come as officials still are awaiting a more formal response from the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance and the Indiana Department of Revenue on the status of the public safety income tax, which may be valid only for three months.

According to one interpretation of the state code that allows for the tax, if the county wishes to continue collection of the income tax next year, it will have to be readopted under a new statute regulating income taxes. That’s because Monroe County adopted its public safety income tax at a rate of 0.25 percent during a transition period from old legislation to a law passed during the most recent Legislative session — between May 1, 2016, and June 30, 2016.

Attorneys for local government entities disagree with that interpretation of the statute and are seeking further explanation, although they do have a contingency plan for readopting the income tax before the Oct. 31 deadline so that revenues from the public safety income tax could continue at the start of the new year.

Copyright 2016 the Herald-Times

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