The unincorporated areas of Bloomington and Van Buren townships will be a part of the Monroe Fire Protection District (MFPD) starting Jan. 1, 2021, about 15 months from now. That’s the result of a unanimous vote by Monroe County’s three commissioners at their regular meeting on Wednesday.
Wednesday’s action by the commissioners included establishing a new, five-member composition of the fire district’s board, starting in 2021. County attorney Jeff Cockerill said at Wednesday’s meeting that it will be the commissioners will appoint fire district board members.
The governing body of the district, which will set the rate of the fire levy, will include one member each from Perry, Clear Creek, Indian Creek, Van Buren, and Bloomington townships.
Among the benefits that have been cited for adding the two townships to the district are: protection of the fire tax levy from annexations by the City of Bloomington; an initial lowering the tax rate for residents of Bloomington Township (but it would increase in the second and third years); administration of county fire departments under one umbrella; and the distribution of expenses over a larger tax base.
MFPD chief Justin Dillard said at one of the public meetings held in Bloomington Township on expansion that the number of MFPD firefighters would increase from 14 to 26.
Based on the financial analysis presented at early-August public meetings, the new five-township fire protection district would have a total net assessed value of $2.13 billion.
Based on that assessed value and the planned budget for the MFPD, the tax levy in the first year would be $0.2452 per $100 of assessed value. In the second year, it would increase to $0.288. In the third year the rate would increase to $0.3538.
In Bloomington Township, the current fire levy is $0.3536. In Van Buren Township the current fire levy is $0.2402. In Clear Creek, Perry and Indian Creek townships, the current fire levy is $0.1633. It will be the MFPD board that eventually sets the rate.
Here’s what fire protection in Monroe County will look like before and after the MFPD expansion:
The Northern Monroe Fire Territory, which currently comprises Bloomington and Washington townships, will dissolve, once Bloomington Township joins the district. Speaking as a citizen member of the board for the fire territory, Geoff McKim, also a Monroe County councilmember, spoke Wednesday in support of the fire district expansion. McKim said that a fire district is, from a statutory perspective, a more stable way to provide fire protection than a fire territory.
McKim also took the chance at the public mic on Wednesday to encourage Bloomington’s city fire department to re-establish the kind of automatic aid that had, until spring of this year, been in place between the MFPD and the city’s department. “It’s a shame that automatic aid has been suspended,” McKim said.
In light of recent comments from the respective fire chiefs, the consolidation of more townships into the MFPD puts the district on a path towards re-establishing automatic aid with the city.
Background to the suspension of the previous arrangement is a kerfuffle between the City of Bloomington and the Monroe Fire Protection District that unfolded in April this year, over the way MFPD wanted to portray its relationship with the City to Insurance Service Office (ISO) representatives. The City said in its formal statement, “… the MFPD planned to present the dispatch system components as proof of automatic aid even though the MFPD was aware there were no signed agreements with [Bloomington Fire Department].” As a result Bloomington Fire Department re-programmed the dispatch system components.
At one early-August public meeting, Dillard told The Beacon that he expects the expansion of the Monroe Fire Protection District (MFPD) to lead to the re-programming of dispatch software to reflect automatic aid between the City of Bloomington and township areas.
At the city fire department’s budget hearings at the end of August, Moore said the city’s department and departments in the county are still operating under the mutual aid agreement—departments can request each other’s help, it just doesn’t happen automatically through programmed dispatch software.
Moore also told the city council the BFD is moving forward with its plans for combined training of city and county departments. Last week, he said, he’d finalized the agreement on the accountability system, which is used for tracking firefighters on a scene. “We still have good relations, we’re still moving forward,” he said.
If the Monroe Fire District delivers on its promises of extra staffing and its plan for the consolidations with other areas in the county, Moore said, “I don’t see any reason why we can’t get to the point of having a legitimate automatic aid with the county departments in the near future.”
The vote by commissioners on Wednesday came after public meetings were held in each township, No petitions objecting to the proposed consolidation of fire protection services were filed, according to county attorney Jeff Cockerill. The public meetings concluded by early August. The timeframe for at least 50 residents to file a petitions in opposition was 30 days after the meetings took place.
Under the resolutions approved by the commissioners in June—one for each township— if enough people had filed timely petitions within 30 days after the public engagement meetings, a public hearing would have been held on remonstration.
Commissioners had set aside Sept. 11 as the date on which a remonstration hearing would be held if petitions had been filed. At their regular meeting on Sept. 11, commissioners told Bloomington Township trustee Kim Alexander, Northern Monroe Fire Territory chief Joel Bomgardner and others there for a possible hearing that no remonstration petitions had been filed.
County attorney Jeff Cockerill confirmed at Wednesday’s meeting that no remonstrance petitions had been filed.
County auditor Cathy Smith said her office had received a lot more signatures than had been required in favor of adding the townships as MFPD members. Township officials told The Beacon the number of signatures required was around 560 for Van Buren Township and 440 for Bloomington Township. The figure is 20 percent of the number of affected property owners, they said.
Wednesday’s public hearing drew only residents who spoke in favor of the MFPD expansion.
Township trustees Kim Alexander (Bloomington Twp) and Rita Barrow (Van Buren Twp) gave brief remarks thanking commissioners and the fire district.
County auditor Cathy Smith addressed the commissioners as a resident of Van Buren Township, saying that she had seen firsthand the professionalism of firefighters in the county when they responded to a fire at her house. She spoke in favor of the MFPD expansion.
Bloomington Township resident Richard Martin told commissioners he was generally supportive of the consolidation of fire protection services because larger units are economically more feasible. He had a couple of concerns, though. They were related to the combination into one district of entities that have different abilities to levy taxes. Another concern of Martin’s is future industrial development west of town, which would be the burden of MFPD to protect.
Martin concluded by saying that he’d go as far as to say that whole county should have a single emergency response agency.
Next up as a possibility that’s been discussed is the consolidation of Washington and Benton townships into the MFPD, the year after Van Buren and Bloomington townships officially join. Here’s a map showing how close that would make Monroe County to a single-fire-department county: