Panel wants to create fire territory

A committee of volunteer firefighters and town representatives has determined that the best hope for sustaining the fire station and fire protection in Nashville is to form a fire territory.

The territory would include Nashville and Washington Township. This new unit of government would be able to levy a tax on property owners in the town and township to pay firefighters to staff the downtown station.

But first, the committee needs to approach the town council and the township board to see if they’re interested in such an arrangement.

If they are, they’ll have to ask the Brown County Commissioners to cut Washington Township out of the Brown County Fire Protection District so it can join Nashville to form the new fire territory.

If those efforts are successful, the territory would have to apply to the state for a tax rate.

The Brown County (Nashville) Volunteer Fire Department’s Steve Gore gave a rough tax estimate of 6 cents on every $100 of assessed property value, but that figure is likely to change as it passes through several levels of approval.

How is this any different?

To some Brown Countians, these ideas may seem familiar.In 2013 and 2014, Washington Township leaders were planning to ask property owners to pay for an emergency fire loan.The loan would have paid for up to four firefighters to staff the Nashville station Monday through Friday, guaranteeing a response during work hours when volunteers are usually least available.

The plan was first proposed in late 2013, but the trustee failed to meet deadlines in state law, so it didn’t progress.

A 2014 attempt was challenged by township taxpayers and ultimately quashed by the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.

In its “disapproval,” the DLGF reported “serious concerns” about the fact that only taxpayers in an unincorporated area would be paying for a loan that would benefit a “countywide fire department.”

The DLGF also mentioned that the loan could result in double taxation, with taxpayers already paying for a countywide ambulance service.

In addition, there was legal uncertainty about the existing Brown County Fire Protection District, which had been tied up in court for years.

Several of those factors have changed since then.

This attempt at funding would draw in taxpayers from a second entity — the town of Nashville.

This month, Brown County Fire is ending its medical first responder service and only routinely responding to fire and other emergency calls — reducing duplication of services by the county’s ambulance contract.

As for the fire district, its future is in the hands of the Brown County Commissioners. They appointed two new members to the three-member district board, but those board members have not been given any duties, and the county commissioners have not made any decisions about the district’s future.

Brown County Fire Chief Dallas “Dak” Kelp predicted challenges to the idea of a town-township fire territory, especially from people who were pro-fire district.

He believes the big difference between a fire territory and the countywide fire district is the direct link to elected officials. A territory is governed by elected officials; a fire district is governed by a board that is appointed by elected officials, he said.

A voter who didn’t like the way a territory was being run could vote against an elected official; voters wouldn’t have much recourse against the leaders of the district, Kelp said.

Why now?

Arthur Omberg — the only town council member at the committee meeting — agreed that trying for a fire territory appears to be the only way to keep fire personnel and guarantee a response.Brown County Fire’s decision to cut first responder service is expected to cut its number of emergency runs in half. But still, the department lacks volunteers, and Kelp — who plans to leave at the end of the year — believes an adequate level of new volunteers isn’t going to appear.Even if they did, a new firefighter needs more than 100 hours of training to be able to fight a fire, he said. That can take months — and building trust with the other firefighters takes longer, he said.

“We had two people (available to respond) today, and that’s a good day. Some days, we have none (for daytime calls),” Kelp said.

“If the HobNob catches on fire tomorrow, will we have anybody from our station available to respond? And from the other stations, how many of them are going to be available, and how long is it going to take them to get there?”

Kelp also asked Omberg and Town Manager Scott Rudd to come up with a way to help the fire department in the interim, because even if the town and township decide they want to create a fire territory, it will be more than a year before it could go into effect due to state deadlines.

They discussed incentives to encourage town employees from the water, sewer and street departments to serve as volunteer firefighters. Six people work in those departments in town, during the hours most volunteer firefighters are at other paid jobs. One town employee is already a Brown County Fire volunteer.

Kelp said paying firefighters has been discussed for more than 20 years.

The county’s ambulance crew used to be manned by volunteers, but in the mid-80s, county leaders decided to make it tax-funded, he said.

Gore said that over the past 60 years, the paid police force in the town and county grew from four people to 35, including jailers, but the firefighting staffing model hasn’t changed.

“Let’s see if there’s a stomach for it and we’ll go from there,” Omberg said about the fire territory idea.

The topic has not yet been placed on any meeting agenda. The council’s next regularly scheduled meeting is Thursday, April 21.

Around the table

The committee that discussed ways to support the volunteer fire department last week: Arthur Omberg (town council, former volunteer firefighter), Scott Rudd (town manager — present for part of meeting), Dallas “Dak” Kelp (Brown County Fire chief), Steve Gore (retired firefighter), Micah Fox (firefighter)

Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.