Funding for public safety is not a Brown County-specific challenge.

State legislation provides several options. Some communities are even changing the structure of their public safety forces in an attempt to improve budgets, staffing or both.

Public safety tax

In July 2016, the state legislature combined several types of income taxes into one. It’s now called local income tax, or LIT.

The maximum that the Brown County Council can charge is 2.5 percent.

Brown County is charging 2.25234 percent, but 0.5 percent of that is a “property tax relief” component that does not fall under the cap, said Susan Gordon, a certified public accountant working for the Indiana State Board of Accounts.

The amount counting toward the cap is 2.0234 percent.

“The county could increase the overall expenditure rate by 0.4766 percent and earmark the increase for public safety,” Gordon said.

The county currently charges a public safety-specific LIT of 0.25 percent. For 2018, it is projected to raise $797,510. The town of Nashville will get $65,028 of that, which it uses for police expenses.

The majority of the county’s LIT is budgeted for ambulance service: $425,000. The rest funds sheriff’s department vehicles and equipment; holiday and overtime pay; and the salaries and benefits of one sheriff’s deputy and one jailer.

About $1.1 million of other sheriff’s department expenses come out of the county’s general fund; and $302,462 more comes from the 911 fund, paid for by cellphone fees, said Brown County Auditor Beth Mulry. That doesn’t count the jail and Animal Control expenses, which also are paid out of the general fund.

Fire departments get no money from the county; they do get some from the townships. However, the county commissioners share a few thousand dollars with them from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, from the sale of timber on public land each year.

More than one local public safety leader has mentioned Monroe County’s recent tax increase as something to think about.

Monroe County’s income tax council voted last summer to adopt a 0.25 percent LIT, with all of it going toward public safety. It raised about $7 million in 2017 and is projected to bring in nearly $8 million in 2018. For 2017, it was budgeted to add 13 staff in the sheriff’s department, including 10 new deputies; another deputy prosecutor; and more security in the Monroe County Courthouse, according to the Herald-Times.

Six township fire departments and fire territories in Monroe County also asked for a total of $900,000 this year to pay for equipment, station repairs and staff — either to maintain current staffing levels or increase them. The fire departments ended up receiving $391,000, with the regional emergency dispatch center getting 29 percent of all public safety tax money, the Herald-Times reported.

Nashville Chief of Police Ben Seastrom said he’d asked the Nashville Town Council about getting more public safety money, but his request didn’t advance to the county level, which is where a change could be made.

State law also says that a fire department or emergency medical service provider may apply to the county council before July 1 each year for a distribution of tax revenue, if they meet certain conditions.

However, unless Brown County were to raise taxes, changing the current distribution would take money away from other government units, Brown County Auditor Beth Mulry said.

Washington Township leaders, in 2013 and 2014, tried to raise property taxes on township residents in order to pay firefighters. For a limited time, state legislation allowed this as an “emergency fire loan,” which could then turn into a revenue stream.

The projected property tax increase was to be $55 to $130 a year on a $100,000 property, just for Washington Township residents.

The 2013 plan failed because of problems with the way a public hearing was advertised. Residents then petitioned against the 2014 plan for a variety of reasons — including concerns about “double taxation” for emergency medical services and fairness in only staffing the Nashville station — and the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance sided with the residents.

The DLGF said at the time that it was only denying that particular attempt at getting additional public safety funding.

Fire district

In early 2007, public discussion was restarted about the merits of a Brown County fire district — a discussion that had started with the League of Women Voters in the 1990s.

Establishing a fire district creates a new taxing entity. That means that communities that are at their maximum tax levy — such as counties and towns — can ask for more taxes for this specific purpose.

In 2007, the Brown County Commissioners voted to create a countywide fire district, but it was never fully implemented or funded because of a lawsuit brought by a group of volunteer firefighters, elected officials and residents. They argued that a district had to be created by landowner petition, not by the commissioners’ vote.

Court battles lasted for eight years and finally ended in the fall of 2015 with Indiana Supreme Court judges saying that the commissioners can change this or any ordinance as they choose.

A Brown County Fire Protection District still exists, but it only includes Van Buren and Jackson townships and the non-town part of Washington Township; it has no funding; and its only purpose, by a county law passed in 2011, is to conduct fire prevention education. Its board has not met in more than a year.

The current county commissioners have not volunteered to wade back into the fire district issue, and they have not been formally approached with any proposals to do so.

However, county commissioner Jerry Pittman said he’s been involved in some side discussions recently with other officials and a few volunteer firefighters about revisiting the topic.

“Some are in favor, some are against. It’s controversial,” he said. “I was sort of opposed to the idea years ago, but I think it’s an option we need to at least look at again to possibly solve some of the funding problems and have an opportunity for better fire protection. That’s one of the great weaknesses in this county. There’s the availability of water … and we’re still all volunteer, and, you know, that gives us the lowest rating in fire protection.”

Hamblen Township has had its own fire protection district for about 20 years. At a Sept. 12 Van Buren Township fire department meeting about the department’s future, Hamblen Volunteer Fire Department Chief Arlan Pierce said the district structure helped to cut a trustee — who is no longer in office — out of the funding circle and get the firefighters the funding they needed. That trustee later pleaded guilty to conversion and official misconduct.

Hamblen Township and Hamblen Fire Protection District residents pay the most for fire protection — 6.6 cents per $100 of assessed property value this year. The next-highest rate is on Jackson Township and Lake Lemon Conservancy residents, at 4 cents.

Fire territory

Facing a shortage of volunteers, the Brown County (Nashville) firefighters were poised to form a fire protection territory with Nashville and Washington Township last year.

The plan was to raise new tax money through this territory to pay firefighters to staff the Nashville station, buy equipment and build up a fund for future needs.

Estimates on how much it would cost taxpayers varied; a figure was never agreed upon because no one ever formally approached the county commissioners with a proposal. However, the town council and Washington Township Advisory Board had both given approvals to move forward.

At town budget hearings last month, Nashville Fire Chief Nick Kelp brought up the idea again and said he’d get an updated property tax estimate to the town council.

One of the concerns some local fire service leaders had about the Brown County fire district was the level of control they would have over their own operations. A fire district board is appointed by elected officials; a territory board is appointed by the participating units in the territory, Kelp said.

Another advantage of a territory over a district is that the provider units have more control over the amount of tax that can be levied, he said.

“Ideally, all a territory or a fire district is is a funding mechanism. It’s a taxing entity to get them funds,” Kelp said. “It’s whenever you start to go past that that things get muddy.”

Since Washington Township is part of the Brown County Fire Protection District, the situation last year was that a fire protection territory couldn’t be formed without approaching the county commissioners first. The commissioners would have to vote to allow Washington Township out of the county district; and that would leave two other townships that don’t touch each other still in the district, Kelp said. The problem with that is that fire districts can’t contain non-neighboring units of government, he said.

A new state law that took effect July 1, HEA 1450, now allows a fire protection district to be a participating unit in a fire protection territory.

The new law says that the legislative bodies of each governmental unit or fire protection district that wish to become part of a territory must adopt identical ordinances between Jan. 1 and April 1. Before that could happen, the units would have to hold public hearings to share information on the property tax impact, services and staffing the new territory would have.

A territory would not have to follow the boundaries of any political subdivision, like a township or county line, the law says.

Pittman, whose district includes Van Buren and most of Washington township, said he hadn’t read the updated law yet, but he would be checking into it.

“Certainly, better equipment would help, and there’s been some talk about having some paid firefighters, and that’s not an idea that’s totally off the table,” he said. “Once again, it takes money to do that, but that could help, and it could certainly help response times.

“You can only get so many volunteers, and there are never enough volunteers to get the job done, it seems,” he added. “There’s a certain amount of burnout when you get called all hours of the day and night, weekends, time away from work and family. Some of these younger guys, it’s fun at first, but it wears on them.”

Van Buren Volunteer Fire Department Chief John Ward said he wouldn’t be opposed to going in on a fire territory, as long as each entity retained oversight over its affairs and all were able to agree on the share of funding they would receive.

The Van Buren volunteer firefighters are now trying to operate only on donations after their contract was severed with the Van Buren Township trustee and a new, separate fire department was started. That new department, Southern Brown, is being funded with township tax money.

Two other volunteer fire departments in the county — Fruitdale and Jackson — also share a township, but they are both receiving funding from their trustee.

“I’m not saying there wouldn’t be hiccups down the road … but things would be so much better,” Ward said about a fire territory. “There would be so much benefit to not only the community, but to individual fire departments.”

Combined departments

Some communities across the country — mostly small ones — are hiring “public safety officers” to do the jobs of firefighters and police officers.

Michigan State University did a study of public safety consolidation in 2016. Researchers were unable to determine an exact number of combined departments across the country, but they did find more than 130 of them, and 1 in 4 were established in the past decade.

Among the reasons communities moved to this model included budget cuts, rural areas trying to provide a broad array of services, and small communities trying to capitalize on existing volunteer safety programs, the report said.

The first community in Indiana to try a public safety officer program was Whitestown, population 6,500, northwest of Indianapolis.

The program started in 2012 because the public safety budget could not keep up with the growth of the community, the police chief told a TV station that year. Whitestown’s population has more than tripled since 2009.

At first, six personnel were cross-trained in law enforcement, basic firefighting and emergency medical care.

Five years in, the public safety officer program has not replaced the fire or police departments, but it has been a “force multiplier,” the fire department reports on its website.

Having PSOs helps cut the response time for fire and medical calls, the police department’s website says.

All police officers also are state-certified firefighters and follow first responder EMS protocol. They also are encouraged to get EMT certification.

On the scene of a fire, PSOs can assist the paid Whitestown Fire Department with “support tasks,” allowing the firefighters to focus on rescues and fire suppression, the fire department says.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs opposes public safety officer programs for a number of reasons, including quality of service and safety for the public and responders. It can also cause more stress on those officers, the group’s position statement says, calling consolidation “a false short-term hope (with) real long-term problems.”

“You’ve heard the expression, ‘Jack of all trades, master of none?’” Brown County Sheriff Scott Southerland asked. “You can’t be a master of any. You get spread too thin.”

Some emergency personnel working in Brown County already are cross-trained — including police as EMTs or volunteer firefighters, and volunteer firefighters as ambulance staff or dispatchers — but that has been the personal decision of those individuals, not a job requirement.

Seastrom, the Nashville police chief, said making a public safety department is “about the only consolidation I see with local government,” but he wasn’t sure how it could be done without adding more staff, which wouldn’t be a cost savings and might not be an efficiency either.

“It’s interesting. The core idea makes sense to me,” Seastrom said. “But it would involve doubling our department. And if we’re going to double our department, why don’t we spend the money to fund the fire department?”

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Author photo
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.