Washington Township property owners are in the Brown County Fire Protection District, along with Van Buren and Jackson townships.
The district costs them no extra taxes and provides no extra services.
It’s supposed to provide fire-prevention education in elementary schools — which individual fire departments have been doing instead.
The district’s board — Micah Fox representing Jackson, Doug Payne for Van Buren and a vacant seat to represent Washington Township — has been inactive since a court ruling settled an eight-year-long fight last fall about the fire district’s creation and its duties.
That could change soon.
Sometime this fall, the Washington Township trustee and advisory board plan to ask the Brown County Commissioners to let their township out of the fire district.
Washington Township would then be free to join the Nashville Town Council in forming a new fire protection territory.
Property owners in that territory would be charged a new fire tax, estimated at 8 to 10 cents per $100 of assessed property value, or $80 to $100 per year on a $100,000 property.
It would pay for the salaries of up to five firefighters at the Nashville station Mondays through Fridays, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., as well as station operating expenses.
They would be the first paid firefighters in Brown County.
On July 7, the Washington Township board, township trustee and town council agreed that this is the plan they’re going to follow to help staffing at the Nashville station and to possibly help taxpayers in getting fire insurance rate reductions.
They believe having paid staff at the station would provide a quicker, guaranteed response to emergency calls.
No date has been set for the commissioners to hear the proposal.
“If the county says no, I don’t know what our recourse of that would be, but at least we can start a dialog and get some sort of movement going in this community,” said town council member and former volunteer firefighter Arthur Omberg.
Fox, who’s the new Brown County (Nashville) Volunteer Fire Department chief, is one of the people advocating for a fire territory.In his pitch to the town council and township board July 7, he pointed out some long-running challenges.
Six full members and six trainees are running the Brown County volunteer fire department in downtown Nashville, which, last year, was called to 612 emergencies — three times more than the county’s next-most busy department.
Because of the stress of so many runs on a small number of volunteers, and several volunteers quitting, the department stopped responding to medical runs at the end of March. That cut call numbers dramatically.
If they had paid staff, they might be able to resume medical service, Omberg said.
Every year, the department loses money, and every year the cost grows to keep it open, Fox said. Between the money it gets now from town taxpayers and township taxpayers, it can’t cover bills like gasoline and electricity, and volunteers are asked to spend additional time fundraising.
“Fire and emergency services as they are currently being provided within Washington Township will cease to become sustainable within the next five years,” Fox said.
In March, a committee of three firefighters and Omberg determined that paying firefighters was the best hope of solving those problems.
On July 7, Fox presented three cost proposals, all between $301,000 and $310,000 per year.
All include four or five paid firefighters — two or three full-time and one to three part-time — as well as a $65,000 to $70,000 operating budget, $12,000 operating balance for emergency spending and $40,000 to $50,000 for capital improvements such as buildings or equipment.
Volunteers would continue to respond as they are available; weekdays during work hours are the times they are least free, Fox said.
Firefighters still would stage fundraisers and community events, but that money could then be spent on equipment and gear instead of operating expenses, he said.
State law does not spell out how fire territories are governed.
Town council and Washington Township elected officials would create an executive committee to oversee the territory and recommend an annual budget, Fox said.
The Indiana Department of Local Government Finance would determine what the levy — the maximum amount of money to be raised from property taxes — would be to fund the territory.
Future expansion is possible.
“Several years into the future, it may be possible to place unmanned satellite stations in Gnaw Bone and Belmont,” the proposal says. “These would allow any volunteers living in those areas to respond quickly to local emergencies, potentially further reducing township residents’ insurance premiums. Additional, specialized services could be added if desired by residents.”
To Ruth Reichmann, the arguments Fox presented in favor of a fire territory sounded familiar.In 2007, she and other League of Women Voters members proposed creating a multi-department fire district to help solve some of the same problems, including insufficient funding.
It was a discussion that began 21 years ago, but with a wider purpose, Reichmann said.
The League’s goal was to create a plan to improve all emergency services — not just fire protection, but providing quicker access to medical care; planning for severe weather; reviewing building and road plans for access by emergency vehicles and for access to enough water to fight a fire; and enforcing open-burning ordinances, too.
Reichmann and fellow League member Susanne Gaudin asked Fox if firefighters had thought about expanding this paid firefighter effort to include fire departments in other townships, to spread the cost over more taxpayers and cover a larger area, and work together to solve problems they share.
That might come eventually, but not right away, said former Brown County VFD Chief Dallas “Dak” Kelp. One of the problems he had with the countywide fire district was that it was too big, too fast; he prefers “baby steps.”
“In talking about emergency services, that was 1995, and we are still taking baby steps,” Reichmann said.
She said back then, firefighters zeroed in on the fire protection issue and the broader discussion about all emergency services was lost.
Gaudin congratulated the fire department for “attempting to solve the very problems that we tried to solve with a countywide district and that haven’t been solved.”
But she cautioned them to think about other tax increases taking effect soon, like Brown County Schools’ 8 cents per $100 of property value.
“Make sure the people on fixed incomes are not going to see a huge hit,” she said.
She said she knows fire departments need more funding and more manpower, but there may be other ways to help, such as offering property tax reductions to volunteer firefighters, or the Brown County VFD joining the Hamblen Fire Protection District, which includes part of Hamblen Township.
“Please, don’t just jump into this. Look at all the alternatives and make it the very best decision possible for this county,” Gaudin said.
“Talk to the commissioners. Ask them, ‘What are you ever going to do with this district that doesn’t really exist, that doesn’t do anything?’ … Either get rid of it, or let’s move forward and make it be effective.”
League of Women Voters President Julie Winn says the group would be pleased to host a community forum before a decision is made, if the commissioners wish them to do so.
Commissioner Diana Biddle said she would welcome that type of discussion, because she, like the rest of the county, doesn’t know enough about what a fire territory is to decide whether it’s a good idea for the county as a whole.
“At this point, my concern is public input, which I don’t think there’s been much. And until there is sufficient public input given for me to be informed and have an opinion, I’m not inclined to make one,” she said.
Commissioner Dave Anderson, who’s up for reelection in November, said he wants more feedback and information, too.
His concern about a fire territory is about tax impact and whether other fire departments would then decide to ask for money to pay for firefighters, too.
Anderson lives in the Hamblen Fire Protection District and pays 7 cents per $100 of assessed property value to the district. Hamblen has no paid firefighters, but has a good crop of volunteers and a board who do a great job, he said.
Questions asked at the July 7 Nashville Town Council-Washington Township Advisory Board joint meeting about forming a new fire protection district:
Will the firefighters that Nashville and Washington Township taxpayers would pay for be routinely called to other areas of the county?
Brown County Volunteer Fire Department Chief Micah Fox said mutual-aid agreements will be the same as they are now: If another fire department calls for his station’s help, he’ll send it.
He doesn’t believe the Brown County VFD, based in Nashville, will become the fire department for the entire county, because dispatchers are still required to call the department closest to a fire. If no one is available to respond from that department and his department was the next-closest, someone would respond, same as they do now.
“I do not see us in any way shape or form becoming a countywide fire department,” he said.
Why not revive the Brown County Fire Protection District, which could have provided funding to place one or two paid firefighters at the stations around the county?
Fox said one person cannot put a fire out by themselves.
Taxpayer Ruth Reichmann said one paid person could have a truck ready to go and know which volunteers they could call on for help at any given hour. “That would be the fair way to the county. This is what I don’t like, is you put everything on Washington taxpayers.”
“This plan is not for a countywide fire department,” Fox said.
“I know, and that’s the problem,” Reichmann said.
Fox said every fire department in the county is able to form a fire territory if they wish.
Brown County Redevelopment Commission member Jim Schultz said he would rather see a countywide fire district because he believes it would be more of a help to economic development than a small fire territory.
Fox’s written proposal brought up other concerns with the Brown County Fire Protection District. It said the majority of tax money it raised would have come from Washington Township because of the value of property there versus the value of property in the other townships. “Washington Township money should stay in Washington Township,” Fox said.
The written proposal also mentioned the way the Brown County Fire Protection District board members are appointed, by the county commissioners. One commissioner represents the area covered by the Hamblen Township Fire Protection District, which is not involved in the Brown County Fire Protection District. “This means one of the commissioners would have a say in who sits on the district board but has no representation responsibility,” the document said.
What is the maximum tax levy the fire territory would ask for?
Fox said he couldn’t answer that question yet; the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance would have to be involved.
Town council member Arthur Omberg, during the meeting, calculated that to get about $300,000 to cover the budget Fox presented, town and township taxpayers would need to be charged between 8 and 10 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
“I can tell you we are in no way going to ask for anything more than what it takes to operate the fire department, and that’s it,” Fox said.
Could the town have a fire territory without involving Washington Township?
No, Omberg said. The tax burden would be too great on town taxpayers to be able to support the budget the fire department has presented for paid staff. Adding township taxpayers to that tax base allows the cost to be spread among more people.
“They can’t do it without us, and we can’t afford to do it without them,” he said.
Would forming a fire territory guarantee a rate reduction on my homeowner’s insurance?
Having paid firefighters could help bring down a department’s ISO rating, which is used by many — but not all — insurance companies to calculate premiums. Former Brown County VFD Chief Dak Kelp said homeowners would have to contact their own agents to see what an improved ISO rating might do to their insurance bill.
What are the next steps?
Fox said a fire territory can only be established between January and March. The next step is going before the Brown County Commissioners to ask them to let Washington Township out of the Brown County Fire Protection District, so the township can join the town in forming a fire territory. No date has been set for when they’ll approach the commissioners.