Fire/EMS funding talks to continue

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By Bryan Marshall

Despite the Grant County Fiscal Court voting down a proposed emergency services taxing district, the debate of how to increase funding for fire and EMS services likely will continue into the new year.
Magistrates Brian Linder, Bobby Young and Richard Austin voted against the proposed taxing district with Judge-Executive Darrell Link voting in favor of the proposal.

“I did vote yes because I understand the funding mechanism that we have in place falls significantly short of meeting the fire departments needs, and the Corinth Fire Department needs immediate financial assistance,” Link said.
Linder, who will no longer be a member of fiscal court in 2013 after being elected as state representative, said the fiscal court realizes the need for more funding and the magistrates are trying to address the issue.
However, he said creating a taxing district would not ultimately be a step forward in the right direction.

“I’ve gone door to door in three elections over the last six years and I can tell you what would happen if this passed,” Linder said. “We would take five steps forward and then in two years there would be petitions and there would several candidates on both parties that would step up to work to repeal the taxing district.”

 So while we would take five steps forward, we would take 15 steps backwards because I do believe the candidates who ran on that platform would win. I believe the petitions would be signed and the proposal would be repealed. And, I believe the funding could be cut.”

Young said that he voted the way he believed his constituents wanted him to.
The majority of responses he received from residents were overwhelmingly that while something needed to be done, the taxing district was not the right solution, said Young.

“I got a lot of calls and e-mails and talked to a lot of people over the past eight or 10 months or a year, however long we’ve been looking at this, to try to feel out we need to proceed with this,” he said. “I feel like, we as a court, made the right decision.”
Young also said he did not like the lack of control the fiscal court had in the decisions of a taxing district to increase taxes.

 “Anytime you start up a taxing district, you put the burden and responsibility of raising taxes on people that, number one, aren’t elected, and number two, that there’s really no fiscal control beyond the fiscal court at that point,” he said. “Those people are appointed and their responsibility is to increase the tax as they see fit. From an elected-standpoint, your hands are tied and you can’t do anything about it at that point.”

The proposed taxing district board created by the emergency services taxing district would have been comprised of seven people, including three appointed by the fiscal court, two elected land owners within the taxing district and two elected fire fighters that are land owners within the district.
Austin did not return a message seeking comments about his vote before press time.

The Grant County Fire Chiefs’ Association released a statement expressing their disappointment in the magistrates’ decision and vowed to “continue to provide fire and emergency medical services to the people of Grant County for as long as we can sustain it with the current funding mechanism.”
“Our hope was that the magistrates would be forward thinking about the needs of fire/EMS in Grant County for both the immediate and future needs of our community,” the statement reads. “Unfortunately, they have chosen to ignore the requests of all five fire departments and the 2,500 plus voters who requested the implementation of this vital funding source. Our hope is that in 2014 we as a county can elect leaders into office that are forward thinking and can move our county’s public safety forward.”

The fire chiefs’ association proposed an emergency services tax last year to to help generate revenue for both fire and ambulance services.
After initially proposing a tax rate of 11 cents per $100 assessed value, the association dropped the rate to 7.5 cents, which would cost taxpayers $75 on a $100,000 home.

It is estimated the 7. 5 percent tax rate would generate about $600,000 per year.

Williamstown and Dry Ridge residents would be exempt from the tax because their cities already spend $1.1 million on fire and EMS protection.
The maximum the rate could ever be is 20 cents per $100 assessed value on property, if approved by the taxing district board.

The vote came after two recent public forums where residents and others were able to express their support or opposition of the taxing district.
Along with several letters of support, the fire chiefs’ association presented the court a petition with 2,531 signatures of registered voters/land owners on it.

Only 1,067 signatures were required on the petition to bring the issue to the court and 1,425 signatures were validated by the county clerk.
The fiscal court has attempted to address the funding issue by discussing an ambulance taxing district that would have an initial rate set at 1.5 cents per $100 assessed property or about $15 for a home valued at $100,000.
The fire chiefs have argued that the ambulance tax, which has since been tabled indefinitely, would not generate enough revenue.

The court also passed a fire ordinance in May that charges residents $25 on their tax bill for fire protection.
The amount of the fire dues can be increased by the fiscal court.
However, residents can apply to opt out of the dues and receive their money back.

The fiscal court has previously budgeted $25,000 for each of the five fire departments in the county, but no money has been set aside for ambulance services.

The Dry Ridge Fire Department and Rural Metro are the two ambulance providers in the county.

With the emergency services tax dead, what will the next step be for the fiscal court and the magistrates?

Link said he is confident that the magistrates will review the revenue that is brought in by the $25 fire dues.
“Hopefully, they will make adjustments to the fire dues ordinance that will get the fire departments closer to their respective budgetary needs,” he said. “Moreover, I encourage the magistrates to re-visit the ambulance tax proposal, but I will not place the ambulance tax on the agenda unless there is an indication of magisterial support. Finally, I am confident that the magistrates will continue to provide leadership on both the fire and ambulance funding needs, and balance any proposed solution against the tax burden already in place for our Grant County families.”

Throughout the public forums, Linder said he heard some residents say they would be OK with paying a $50 or even $75 fire subscription fee, a move that the court can still make.

“While I will no longer be in this seat, I would urge the court to take a look at that next year,” he said. “I think the intent was that if the different fire departments needed things they could come to the court and ask us to raise it for that year. Then the court could look at it and make some decision. So, I think we have something in place.”

Young said he knows there is a lot of work to do to get to the point of what the fire chiefs proposed in a three-year plan for immediate equipment needs and the replacement of the Corinth Fire Department building due to age and use.
However, he said he hopes the court can “meet or exceed those goals in a timely manner.”

“We’re definitely going to look at something to get some help with an ambulance in the county,” Young said.
With depleted reserves and increased costs, the city of Dry Ridge also must decide what to do without a revenue surge from the emergency services tax.
“Obviously, the way the county voted impacted everything,” said Dry Ridge Fire Department Assistant Chief Jeff Nantz. “The city doesn’t have any reserves left. The city, that has been very supportive of us over the years, is faced with some tough decisions now. They kind of have their backs to the wall on what to do. We felt like we needed to be proactive in helping with the decision making.”

The DRFD chiefs met since the vote and have mapped out several different potential options that the Dry Ridge City Council could consider.
The department plans to present those options to the council during its Jan. 7 meeting.

One possible option could be the DRFD pulling back its services to within city limits, a move that has been suggested previously by Mayor Clay Crupper.
“They don’t have to choose any of them, obviously,” Nantz said about the options. “But, we’ll give them some things to look at and consider. It’s bleak. I think the city’s being very truthful when they’ve said the things they’ve said about the condition of things. Really, it’s not fair that they’re providing a service that county government has turned their back on.”