Issues on November ballot

Local volunteer fire departments count on the community to provide more than their membership.

On the Nov. 5 general election ballot, half a dozen volunteer companies are asking voters to approve levies to supplement their funding. Five of these would continue existing levies, while one is for an additional sum.

Of the existing levies, four would collect additional money as their values are “reset” to the millage rate previously approved. Although levies are adopted with specific millage, they cannot collect more than the original total amount each year. Therefore, as property values increase, the effective millage rate decreases.

A change made in Ohio’s mammoth biennial budget bill this year eliminates the 12.5 percent rollback the state paid on local levies. For any new levy or replacement that changes the amount collected, taxpayers will be responsible for every penny, as opposed to the state paying 12.5 cents of each dollar.

Representatives of each of the six fire departments with levies on the ballot expressed their appreciation for their communities’ support, and noted they pursue grants and hold fundraisers to supplement what the levies provide.

Barlow Township

The Barlow Volunteer Fire Department is asking voters to approve five more years of a 1.5-mill levy.

That’s the rate approved the last time the at-least-20-year-old levy was renewed five years ago. The current effective rate is 1.44 mills, which generates $65,879 a year to support day-to-day operations, said John Church, president of the department. That costs the owner of a residential property valued at $100,000 an annual $44.10.

Resetting the millage to 1.5 will generate an estimated $68,556 a year and increase the annual cost for taxes on a $100,000 property to $52.50. Without the changes in the budget bill, that cost would have been $45.94, according to data provided by Washington County Auditor Bill McFarland.

Vincent resident Carol Zimmer, a former member of the fire department, said she’s not thrilled the cost is going up but that won’t stop her from voting for the levy.

“Every expense concerns me,” she said. But, “if you don’t have a fire department that’s up to date, your insurance rates are going to go up.”

Church said the money would be used for “utilities and upkeep and repairs,” noting members of the department recently replaced a natural gas main going into the building.

“We try to do that work ourselves and keep our costs down as much as we can,” he said.

The department has no paid members to cover certain times of the day, but “we can’t remember a time that we’ve not been able to answer a call,” Church said.

The budget also relies on fundraising by members and insurance billing for emergency squad runs, which brings in approximately $75,000 a year.

Fearing Township

The Fearing Volunteer Fire Department is seeking approval for five more years of one of two levies that have supported the department since the 1970s, said Fearing Chief Jeff Lauer.

This one was passed at a rate of 2 mills, and approval would put it back at that level, up from an effective rate now of 1.76. That means the levy would generate about $29,286 a year, compared to $26,007 now. The amount the owner of a $100,000 property pays would go from $53.90 a year to $70. The elimination of the rollback increases the new amount by $8.75.

“We’ve been really, really proud (of) both our levies,” Lauer said. “We do it to keep our general fire department operating.”

The levies cover a little more than half the department’s annual operating budget. Members know they’re not just signing up to fight fires and provide emergency medical care – they’re also going to be fundraising, Lauer said.

“We’ve made up all of our money thanks to people coming to our dinners, ice cream socials,” he said.

The department pursues grants whenever possible and also rents out the fire hall for community dinners and events to raise money, Lauer said.

Marietta Township

A year after passing a pair of levies to pay for around-the-clock EMS staffing, the Reno Volunteer Fire Department is hoping voters approve a long-standing levy whose rate is not changing.

The levy on the ballot for Marietta Township residents was passed for half a mill and that remains its effective rate. As such, the levy is a renewal and the state’s 12.5 percent rollback will continue, meaning the owner of a residential property valued at $100,000 will still pay $15.31 a year.

The levy raises $45,225 annually and has been in place since the early 1970s, said Reno Fire Chief Dan Ritchey.

“That’s just for fire,” he said. “We don’t use that money there for the squad.”

The levy money pays for most, but not all, of the department’s insurance on its building and trucks and worker’s compensation costs.

“It (worker’s comp) doubled and went to $36,000 a year,” Ritchey said.

The chief said he had no interest in increasing the levy rate.

“I don’t want to do any more taxes. We get it through our socials and donations,” he said.

Watertown Township

The passage of a proposed EMS levy in Watertown Township will save residents from having to foot the entirety of their future squad bills.

With no dedicated squad service of its own, Watertown Township has been digging into the township general fund to foot the bill for contracted services with neighboring EMS providers.

Those costs have been steadily rising and now Watertown is asking for a 2-mill, 5-year levy that will be used exclusively to pay for contracted ambulance services and will mean residents are no longer billed when they call the squad, said Township Trustee Doug Parks.

“The way it is now, we bill residents for runs. And some of them pay it and some of them don’t. And whatever doesn’t get paid the township ends up eating that cost,” said Parks.

The township contracts with Barlow, Warren and Adams townships, but most of Watertown’s squad runs are made by the Beverly-Waterford Rescue Squad.

The contract with the Beverly-Waterford Volunteer Fire Department was raised from $2,500 to $3,000 this year. But there is concern that it will go up more because the department is providing so many runs in Watertown Township, it is actually losing money, said Parks.

The proposed levy would generate $41,129 annually and the owner of a residential property valued at $100,000 would pay $70 a year.

The money would be used exclusively for EMS services, said Parks. A 1.5-mill levy already in place can be used exclusively to funds Watertown’s fire services.

Muskingum West Township

The portion of Muskingum Township serviced by the Oak Grove Volunteer Fire Department is being asked to pass a 4-mill replacement levy that will pay to replace the department’s 25-year-old ambulance.

“It’s been nickel and diming them the last year and half to keep that squad running,” said Muskingum Township Trustee Gary Doan.

The department is looking at a new squad that would likely cost between $90,000 to $100,000, he added.

“They’re not going for all the bells and whistles. They just need something basic,” said Doan.

The replacement levy would bring the levy from its current effective rate of 3.9 mills, where it is generating $93,110 annually, back up to its originally approved rate and generate $96,121 annually.

Currently the owner of a residential property valued at $100,000 pays $119.44 per year. This would increase to $140 annually under the new levy-$17.50 more than would be paid if the state’s rollbacks were still in place.

A replacement levy was necessary instead of a renewal because of all the new houses and businesses in the area, said Oak Grove Fire Chief Brian Pracht.

“We want to catch up with all the new people and businesses. AEP just moved into the area, and a renewal levy wouldn’t pull in the new businesses,” he said.

Muskingum East Township

The eastern portion of Muskingum Township is also being asked to support a 2.5-mill levy to replace the levy that currently supports the Devola Volunteer Fire Company’s day to day operations.

“We use this for the operation of the fire company-maintenance, truck repairing, training, certification, utilities, insurance, protective gear, and fuel costs,” said firefighter and EMT Dan Kilmer.

The replacement levy would generate $174,499 annually-$5,092 more than is being generated by the current 2.45-mill effective rate.

The levy would raise the annual cost for the owner of a $100,000 residential property from $75.03 to $87.50. If state rollbacks were still in place, the new levy would only cost that homeowner an additional $1.53.

A separate 1.5-mill levy is used to pay for a paid two-person EMS staff that staffs the station from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays.

Besides that, the department tries to secure money through fundraising, such as their annual ice cream social in August. But fundraising alone is not enough to run the fire company, said Kilmer.

“We couldn’t operate without the tax levy,” he said.

Frontier Local Schools

The specific effects on the Frontier Local school district if the five-year, 9.19-mill emergency levy on the Nov. 5 ballot is rejected by voters have not been determined.

But the changes – which could include closing one or even two schools, shifting to grade-specific buildings, cutting elementary physical education and music again and eliminating positions that support children in need of additional math and reading help – would likely be drastic.

“I think passage of the levy saves Frontier,” Superintendent Bruce Kidder said.

If approved by voters, the levy would generate $550,000 a year and cost the owner of residential property valued at $100,000 an additional $321.65 a year in property taxes. The money would fend off deficit spending for at least a couple of years and allow the district to keep some services that had been eliminated earlier or are in jeopardy due to state and federal funding cuts, administration officials have said.

“The state isn’t going to step in and bail us out, and I’ve got to turn to the local community to see what they will support,” Kidder said.

Due to changes in state funding and declining enrollment, the district spent approximately $600,000 more than it took in during the 2012-13 school year, and Kidder said it is still expected to be $300,000 to $400,000 in the red this year. The district’s cash reserves are at around $1 million.

The new school funding formula is projected to increase the district’s state aid by 2.1 percent this school year and 0.8 percent the next. That’s lower than some proposals had included, and Kidder noted it’s still contingent on enrollment. That not only means they lose more than $5,000 in funding for each student that leaves the district, it makes the district look wealthier in the state formula because fewer students increases the per-pupil property valuation.

“It’s like a double whammy for us,” Kidder said. “The income in the community didn’t go up; the property value in the community didn’t go up, but we got wealthier.”

Passage of the levy would mostly allow the district to maintain its current services, including recently returned elementary physical education and music. As a result of the federal sequestration, the district recently lost $60,000 that supported a pair of Title I teachers, who provide intervention service for students who need help in subjects like math and reading. Rather than eliminate the positions, leaving one Title I teacher each at Newport and New Matamoras, the board agreed to fund their positions out of the general fund. But those positions could be on the chopping block without new revenue from the levy, Kidder said.

Passage of the levy could also allow the district to make some additions. Kidder said he would like to see art back in the elementary schools and a Title I teacher working with middle school students again.

Other uses for the money would be maintenance of existing buildings and upgrading technology. Kidder noted that state tests will soon be required to be taken on computers.