The Nashville Town Council and the Washington Township Advisory Board have agreed to take the first step toward potentially paying firefighters: meeting together to talk about it.
That meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 7 at Town Hall.
They’ll discuss creating a fire territory, which could establish a tax to pay four firefighters to staff the Brown County Fire station in Nashville for 12 hours a day during weekdays.
Right now, no firefighters in Brown County are paid. The county is covered by six all-volunteer fire departments who respond to emergencies as they are able, when they aren’t working other jobs.
Nashville firefighters said they believe that having a paid staff would not only guarantee a response but that they could respond quicker by already being at the station. They said residents’ fire insurance rates could eventually decrease, too.
The paid staff would still supplemented by volunteers on the weekends.
The cost is estimated at $300,000.
Before the boards take a bigger step — going before the Brown County Commissioners — they want to review a written proposal from the fire department.
Creating a town-township fire territory can only happen if the county commissioners agree to let Washington Township out of the Brown County Fire Protection District — an entity which has been inactive during eight years of legal battles, and whose future is now in the hands of the commissioners.
In March, a town council-fire department committee informally determined that forming a territory was the best hope for sustaining the fire station and fire protection in Nashville.
The time commitment is too great for volunteers to be a long-term solution anymore, incoming Brown County Chief Micah Fox and retiring Chief Dallas “Dak” Kelp have said.
The town cannot raise enough money to pay firefighters on its own, as it’s within a few dollars of its taxing capacity.
Washington Township tried two years ago to impose a fire tax on only township residents to pay for firefighters, but it was stopped by the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance and residents’ petitions.
“The ultimate goal is that either we can afford it (paying firefighters) by doing it with Washington Township, or we push the fire district board into doing something with more funding,” town council member Arthur Omberg said at the June council meeting.
The amount Nashville and Washington Township taxpayers might pay to support the new fire territory is 6 to 8 cents per $100 of assessed property value, or $60 to $80 per year on a $100,000 property.
Right now, Nashville residents pay no fire protection tax; however, they pay 2.5 cents per $100 of property value into a town fund for fire department buildings and equipment. The town pays an additional $12,000 per year out of its general fund for fire protection.
Washington Township residents pay the least to the fire service of any property owners in the county. Outside of town limits, they are currently charged 1.6 cents on each $100 of property value.
Hamblen Township property owners pay the most for firefighting services, at 7.5 cents per $100.
Fox said the exact amount of the tax would be dependent on what the assessed value is of all taxable property in the town and township when a territory is created.
The department would need about $300,000 to cover salaries and operating expenses, he estimated.
Then, firefighters wouldn’t need to conduct fundraisers anymore to pay the bills. The station wouldn’t have to run in the red as it has for at least the past five years, he said.
Brown County fire leaders’ vision is to have three full-time firefighters at the Nashville station, plus one part-time job with several firefighters on rotation. Full-timers’ salaries would range from $35,000 to $45,000.
The four would work eight-hour, staggered shifts during the hours and days volunteers are usually at work and unavailable to respond, Kelp said.
Kelp told the township board May 26 that when the paid staff weren’t making runs, they would be cleaning and maintaining trucks, training, completing required paperwork, or working on other duties that caused the station to lose points on its most recent ISO evaluation.
A station’s ISO rating factors heavily into fire insurance coverage rates for property owners. The categories in which the station lost the most points were personnel, training and fire equipment and response planning.
Firefighters said they believe a paid fire force could mean lower fire insurance rates over time, but that is not a guarantee; the effectiveness of the water supply and dispatch system also factor into ISO.
Kelp said paid firefighters also could start responding to medical emergencies again. The Nashville station discontinued that service at the end of March because of lack of manpower and fatigue from the few remaining volunteers, who were responding to an average of more than two runs per day.
A concern town and township board members have raised is that any tax increase could be a burden on low-income or fixed-income residents.
Kelp said if people can find money to pay for a cellphone, they can find much less money than that to pay for fire protection.
“Poor people wreck cars, too. Poor people’s houses burn down, too. Fire doesn’t differentiate among how much money you have,” he told the township board.
If the town and township boards decide that forming a fire territory is something they want to do, they may approach the county commissioners July 20 about letting Washington Township out of the county fire district.
If the commissioners agree to do that, the boards would have many more steps, votes and public hearings in front of them before actually creating a fire territory.
The other option Omberg alluded to — using the existing Brown County Fire Protection District as a funding mechanism — would be a decision the commissioners, county council and DLGF would have to make.
After it was created in 2007, the Brown County Fire Protection District received the state’s permission to levy up to $420,000 in taxes to aid in fire protection for the whole county. But it never collected any of that money because of the legal battle that followed between district supporters and taxpayers who believed the district was created illegally.
A fire protection district may be a single township, a combination of townships, parts of one or more townships in the same county, or all the townships in the same county. The current Brown County Fire Protection District includes Washington, Jackson and Van Buren townships, but not the town of Nashville. Hamblen Township is part of a separate fire protection district.
Two percent of the landowners in the proposed district (at least 500 signers), a majority of landowners, a city or town or another legislative body may create a fire protection district. Landowners also can petition against one being created.
Local elected officials appoint a board of fire trustees. They are responsible for providing fire protection and have the ability to incur debt and levy property taxes; they also must prepare and submit the budget and tax levies to the county council, which reviews and approves the budget.
Tax levies for fire protection districts are originally established by the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance and the Local Government Tax Control Board. Fire protection districts are subject to maximum levy controls.
A fire protection territory may coincide with existing political subdivisions, such as a township or group of townships, and may cross county lines.
To establish a fire protection territory, the legislative bodies of at least two contiguous units must pass identical ordinances or resolutions. Before each is passed, each body must hold a public hearing.
The chapter of Indiana law about fire territories does not spell out exactly how a territory is governed.
One of the participating units is the “provider unit,” responsible for providing the fire protection services within the territory. That unit must establish a fire protection territory fund from which all of the expenses of the territory are paid, and prepare the annual budget with the assistance of the other participating units.
The property tax rate is based on the assessed value of the entire territory. Participating units may also agree to establish an equipment fund — which could also be spent on housing — that will be used to serve the entire territory.
Provisions that are only available to fire protection territories include that the territory (provider unit) shall annually budget and levy what it needs. Fire protection territories established after July 31, 2001 are exempt from property tax levy controls for the first three years for which the participating unit levies a tax to support the territory. The DLGF calculates a maximum levy after the third year that the fire territory is in existence using the fire territory’s third-year levy as the beginning levy.
Source: Indiana Department of Local Government Finance
The Washington Township Advisory Board is still looking at buying a new fire rescue truck for the Brown County (Nashville) Volunteer Fire Department.
Its cost is estimated at $400,000.
Washington Township Trustee Brandon Magner said the township’s fire department cumulative fund has about $100,000. To buy this truck, they’d have to borrow money.
Until he gets more information from potential lenders, Magner doesn’t yet know what the impact of a loan could be on township taxpayers.
The rescue truck is only one of the trucks the station might have to replace in the next four or so years, said Chief Dallas “Dak” Kelp. He said they’re going to need to replace a tanker as well, at an estimated cost of $200,000 to $250,000.