Franklin VFD fears levy change, loss of funds

SUMMITVILLE – The Franklin Township Volunteer Fire Department is asking township trustees to keep two fire levies unchanged.

Township residents are paying on two fire levies and one 1.6-mill road levy, with the fire levies set at 3 mills and 0.9 mill.

Trustees Michael Lutz, Randy Brown and Joe Medure are looking into not renewing the 0.9-mill levy this November and reducing the 3-mill levy to a 2-mill so as not to burden taxpayers in light of an additional 2-mill road levy on the May 8 primary election ballot.

Trustees approved putting the additional road levy on the ballot to generate more money to maintain roads in the face of rising equipment and supply costs. If approved, the levy will generate $64,900 a year.

The 1.6-mill road levy generates $55,200 a year and was first approved by voters in 1960 as a 2-mill levy. The millage was reduced twice in the 1970s, and has remained at the 1.6-mill threshold since 1975. It has been renewed since then.

The possibility of changes to the fire levies has not been well received by the fire department and some in the community.

Resident Katie Bryan told trustees this week the township has no right to remove or reduce levies that have already been approved by taxpayers in the past.

Fire Chief Jim May, who could not attend the trustee meeting, said the change would mean a cut of 54 percent over the next two years for the department.

The fire levies are expected to generate money through 2018 and 2019.

The two fire levies combined will generate $118,000 for the department this year, township Fiscal Officer Britnie Baker said.

With a carryover from last year, total fire revenue will be around $124,294, she added.

The fire revenue has increased significantly over the last few years as a result of a reassessment of land value through the county due to oil and gas in the township.

“We understand we have this money from oil and gas, and we understand we have received an increase over the last two years, but we are afraid that at some point in time it is not going to stay there,” May said.

The fire department has one station, four trucks and 18 volunteer firefighters on its roster. May has been chief for just under 20 years.

He said that at one point, to increase recruitment, he offered to implement a reimbursement or paid-on-call, but the firefighters rejected any pay.

May said the department needs about $100,000 to operate in line with National Fire Protection Association standards.

However, that figure was called into question by the trustees and Baker, who pointed out that May has been satisfied with a lesser budget until now.

In fact, Brown said that May was quoted in the minutes of a Summitville village council meeting in September of last year as saying that the department only needed about $52,000.

Medure pointed out that May’s most recent budget estimate was for over $70,000 and that the $100,000 total was with May’s “wish list” items included.

Trustees are concerned that roads are deteriorating faster than they can make repairs and believe the fire department has enough money to work with.

They compared the fire department budget to that of other neighboring communities, noting that most departments with similar population operate on roughly $50,000 to $60,000.

Lutz said that Madison Township’s budget is roughly $136,000, but there are 3,600 residents while Franklin Township has about 700 people paying on the levies.

Fire department secretary and treasurer Renee May submitted a formal letter on behalf of the department to trustees during their recent meeting.

She read from the letter, “We are officially requesting that you reconsider your recent decisions that will have an adverse impact on the residents of Franklin Township. It is our opinion that we need to maintain the existing fire levies and the community at large.”

The letter asks trustees to place the 0.9-mill levy on the November ballot for residents to decide, and to reverse actions to reduce the 3-mill levy.

Renee May expressed concerns of her own as well, including a fear that the department will be shut down for not meeting state requirements if firefighters can’t afford the proper training or equipment.

Trustees stressed the fire department will not go away.

“The fire department is the hub of the community. Do you think I want the fire department to go away? No way,” Lutz said.

Trustees didn’t make any decisions that evening, and said they would go door to door to gather taxpayer input before making deciding.

At the close of the meeting, they conducted an interview for a road crew position that became available when one employee quit to go back to working for Center Township.

The board offered $15 an hour to the applicant, but he rejected the offer, wanting a higher figure. Trustees remained firm they could not go any higher at this point.

The township’s other road employee is newly appointed supervisor Jim Gray. The two employees are responsible for 37.5 miles of road, with roughly 30 miles chip and seal and 7.5 miles gravel.

The township operates on a total budget of $522,445, with salaries for all employees accounting for $140,000, including retirement benefits. Township employees do not receive health insurance.

Township salaries are determined by the state, based on the township’s budget.