Fire protection in Monroe County to be a fully involved topic in coming weeks

The Monroe Fire Protection District (MFPD) will be in the spotlight in the next few weeks and months.

Two townships in Monroe County, Benton and Washington, are looking to join the district starting in 2022, in a process that’s now underway and could be in front of county commissioners before the end of the year.

The nearly $12-million 2021 budget that MFPD chief Dustin Dillard is proposing  will get a close look from county councilors at a Tuesday, Aug. 25 work session.

Also related to MFPD and other rural departments that are looking to join the district, is a scheduled vote by the county council on allocations of public safety local income tax (PS-LIT) money.

In an early August vote by the PS-LIT committee of the tax council, Bloomington and Ellettsville members outnumbered county councilors 5 to 2, and voted to deny about $330,000 in requests from MFPD and other rural departments.

A scheduled Aug. 31 vote of the county council as a tax council member, which likely will support the rural fire department requests, is probably futile. That’s because the county council lacks sufficient votes on the full tax council to determine the outcome. But it could be the county council’s way of going on record in support of the proposed funding of rural department requests.

The other two member governing bodies of the tax council, Bloomington’s city council, and Ellettsville’s town council, could choose not to act on the same resolution considered by the county council.

Sometime in September, Bloomington’s city council is likely to take up its own resolution on PS-LIT allocations—to the dispatch center and to the respective jurisdictions—and approve them on a unanimous vote. That vote is expected to follow the tax council’s PS-LIT committee recommendation, which was not to allocate PS-LIT money directly to rural fire departments.

One of the denied requests for a direct PS-LIT allocation was for $80,000 from Benton Township’s fire department, to install an interior exhaust system in the township’s station.

While that’s a setback for Benton Township, it could help make the case that Benton Township should join the MFPD. Joining the district will allow for a raising of the Benton Township property tax rate for fire protection to match the uniform rate applied across all MFPD members.

Benton Township’s proposed consolidation with MFPD

Two weeks ago on Saturday, Benton Township officials held the last of three public meetings to review a proposed merger of the Benton Township Volunteer Fire Department with the Monroe Fire Protection District (MFPD).

The process is similar to the one used last year by Van Buren and Bloomington townships to join the MFPD, starting in 2021. It means that in January MFPD will include all the townships in the southwest quadrant of the county (Clear Creek, Perry, Indian Creek and Van Buren) plus Bloomington Township in the mid-north.

A requirement for joining the district is a shared boundary, so it’s Bloomington Township’s membership that allows its eastern neighbor, Benton Township, to consider joining this year.

The same goes for Washington Township, which borders Bloomington Township on the north. The public meetings about a merger between Washington Township and MFPD are set for September, accord to township trustee Barb Ooley.

A still open question is whether Benton Township will have the required petition signatures from 20 percent of property owners (402) that is required in the county commissioners February resolution.

An initial postcard mailing to Benton Township property owners didn’t include return postage, and used the word “interest” not “support.” A second mailing was sent with wording that said returning the postcard indicated support of joining MFPD. A web form has also been set up to collect additional support.

Benton Township trustee Michelle Bright told The Square Beacon that she has more than 600 postcards indicating either support or interest. As of last Friday, the Monroe County’s auditor’s office did not have a count.

The move to merge Benton Township’s fire department with MFPD is motivated by two kinds of concerns.

Finances

One concern is financial. The township is already dipping into reserves this year to fund its current arrangement with Bloomington Township—which is to be replaced by a contract with MFPD, starting in 2021. The idea is to contract with MFPD for a year before joining as a member. Benton Township can’t continue to contract with Bloomington Township, because Bloomington Township will be a member of MFPD starting in 2021.

This year, according to Benton Township trustee Michelle Bright, the township’s fire fighting revenue—from property taxes, excise taxes, and local income tax—is $323,695. This year’s fire protection expenditure budget is $374,200. That means that this year, the township is tapping $50,505 in reserves.

What’s proposed for 2022 in connection with an MFPD merger is a replacement of Benton Township’s fire tax rate of $0.1211 with MFPD’s rate of $0.2968. That would more than double the amount paid for fire protection in Benton Township, but would increase the total tax rate of $1.2890 by about 13.6 percent, to $1.4647. The current MPFD rate of $0.3622 would drop to $0.2968 for all members of the district.

The lowering of the MPFD tax rate, as more members are added, is based on the ability to spread costs over a wider base. The prospect of seeing the district rate lowered in the future, if Richland and Bean Blossom townships were to join PDFD, was something that seemed to resonate with the dozen people who attended the Aug. 8 public meeting at Benton Township’s fire house.

Next year’s possible contract with MFPD, which would cover 2021, would work as a kind of bridge to 2022, when Benton Township could become a member of MFPD. Membership would mean a higher level of funding and fire protection. But the price tag for that contract in the interim year is $450,000, which now would mean drawing down additional Benton Township reserves.

According to Bright, if Benton Township’s membership is approved late this year for a 2022 start, then under the $450,000 contract for the coming year, MFPD would go ahead and staff the Benton station with two full-time firefighters.

Better protection

That’s the other motivation for joining MFPD: an interest in improving fire and medical response times in Benton Township. MFPD chief Dustin Dillard addressed response times at the Aug. 8  public meeting held at the Benton Township fire station. He said the response time to areas inside Benton Township could improve from a current range of 5 to 35 minutes, to a maximum of 9 minutes.

About the high end of the current range, Dillard said, “Thirty-five minutes might sound astronomical to you. It’s a long time for the volunteers at home. They get the call, and have to come and get the truck, that may take 10 minutes. … They put their gear on, they get on the truck and then they roll.” Having full-time firefighters staffed in the fire station building, Dillard believes, will drop the longest response time to 9 minutes.

Recruiting volunteers is also a challenge, according to Benton Township’s fire chief Charley Powers. It’s one of the reasons he gave why he thinks the township needs to join the MFPD, even if he wishes that they didn’t have to.

Powers blamed state certification requirements on training for some of the difficulty in recruiting volunteers. Years ago, Powers said, fire departments were left to determine the competency of their own volunteers. “People without training can still help, right? You can still pull hose off an engine,” Powers said.

Now, Powers said, the department gets volunteers who are eager at first, but once they discover that they have to wait a year before they can go on emergency calls, their enthusiasm fades.

Other reasons given by Dillard for joining the district include improved ISO ratings which can reduce insurance rates for homeowners. One of the reasons for a higher (worse) ISO rating is being farther than 1,000 feet away from the nearest hydrant, Dillard said.

Most rural locations are farther away than 1,000 feet from the nearest hydrant. MFPD is doing a “water shuttle” survey, which could, if it’s approved, eliminate the 1,000-foot requirement, Dillard said.

Photos: Aug. 8, 2020 public meeting at Benton Township’s fire station

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