Fire Chief Jeremy Likens and Tippecanoe Township Trustee Chris Francis presented a proposal Wednesday night at a public meeting to form the North Webster-Tippecanoe Township Fire Territory.
The North Webster Town Council and Tippecanoe Township Advisory Board were present to hear the pitch. No decisions were made. Both boards would have to approve the fire territory, which would impact taxes in the town and township but also would provide enhanced fire and EMS services.
Francis said discussion on forming a fire territory began around 2014.
“As a township, you pay into two separate taxes that fund the fire department. You’ve got the cumulative fund and then the general fire fund that funds our expenses on the fire department side,” he said. “Within that, the cumulative fund is for major expenses, non-day-to-day out-of-the-blue costs.” The cumulative fund is where apparatuses and major equipment are paid for from and does not fund payroll. “Everything else that goes into our fire fund is where the payroll, our health insurance, our volunteer pay, every other expense that we have … that’s where that comes from.”
Since taking office as trustee, Francis said he’s made it a priority to keep the ambulance service local.
“With expenses going up, with payroll, health insurance, it’s getting more expensive … but I wholeheartedly feel that we’ve got to keep our ambulance service right here in town under our control. With that being said, we’re at the top. We raised wages last year. Health insurance is constantly increasing, just like it is for all of us,” Francis said.
Firefighters are on the civilian PERF, which is the state’s general pension fund. They get health insurance from the township as part of their pay.
“So, we have to figure out, what is it going to take for us to retain and recruit employees for down the road, which is why we raised the wages,” Francis said. “The other side of this, too, for those of you that don’t know, our fire department and EMS are combined. Our staff are cross-trained, so we have staff that provides fire service and EMS service.”
He said volunteerism across the country is in a “downward spiral all across the board,” and everyone is struggling. “And our state, for the past several legislative sessions, have brought up a ($500) income tax credit for volunteer firemen. And that can’t even make it out of committee.”
He said they have two staff members on an ambulance, but everything else they cover is by volunteers.
“So if we get a structure fire, a car wreck, whatever comes out, we’ve got two staff members – hopefully, they’re on station and not on another call – but everything else is supplemented by volunteers,” he said.
There’s also a need to staff a second ambulance. Ambulance calls are increasing, and North Webster EMS has taken more calls from Noble County than it ever has, “and that’s an issue that we’ll be addressing with Parkview pretty soon,” Francis said.
It is the township’s responsibility to make sure that its residents are provided fire protection. Tippecanoe Township provides an ambulance service with that.
“I think there was a little bit of a misconception that went out about this when we first started talking about it. This is not about building a new station,” Francis said. “This is about the decision on how we’re going to provide for the safety of our township.”
Likens gave a rundown of himself and the fire department/EMS.
Likens came on the fire department in 1992, becoming fire chief in 2004.
The fire department was established in about 1935, starting as a volunteer bucket brigade. The first pumper was purchased in 1941, and the EMS was added in 1978. The ambulance service was served by Eastlund Funeral Home until the EMS service started in the 1970s, with 20 active volunteers.
In 1996, Likens said former Trustee Dick Mitchell had a vision to create and form a paramedic ambulance service for the community. That service is still going.
“At that time, when that was started, calls were increasing and I believe that Dick realized that we could be more than a basic life support system. We could become a paramedic ambulance service to serve this community,” Likens said.
The ambulance service was supplemented by volunteer EMTs. Three full-time paramedics were hired for 24/7 coverage at that time to support the service. In 1998-99, three more medics were hired to support two ambulances, Likens said he was told.
In 1998-99, the volunteer fire department started looking at its International Organization for Standardization (ISO) qualifications, which can reduce homeowners’ insurance premiums. A 10 is the poorest ISO level, with 1 being the best. In 1999, the NWFD was given a 10/9. By 2006, it was down to a 7. “That is a huge accomplishment, even to get to that point, as a volunteer fire department, with no water system in this town. A huge accomplishment,” Likens said.
Likens went full-time at the department in 2012 due to the daytime response of volunteers, who had to work out of town. He was the department’s first full-time employee. In 2014, with a high run volume and Likens by himself during the day, an additional full-time firefighter was added. The town of North Webster covered the annual salary.
In 2016, the NWFD’s ISO improved from a 7 to 6 and that’s where it is today, but it’s up for another audit, which Likens is nervous about because the COVID-19 pandemic may have set the department back on its qualifications. “So, one thing that I want to make sure happens is, we don’t lose what we have worked so hard for. This is one of the reasons we are looking at this fire territory,” Likens said.
Also in 2016, the EMS and fire department merged back together under one roof. At that time, there were a lot of paramedics/EMTs that were cross-trained. “My vision with this was, if we’ve got paid staff already here, and they’re cross-trained, why can’t we utilize them up at the fire station to take all the calls, to the best of our ability, that come in,” Likens said.
They’re doing all of that with three shifts and two people per shift, with an ever-increasing call volume.
“The EMS needs the fire department, and the fire department needs the EMS. Both of those have to work together today to make sure you guys are safe in this community,” Likens said.
As of Wednesday, they had 591 ambulance calls for 2020. In 2019, they were just shy of 515. Costs also continue to increase.
“And I’m very concerned about our volunteer side of it. Volunteers right now are very short, limited, for everybody across the country,” Likens said.
Paige E. Sansone, certified public accountant and partner with Baker Tilly, municipal advisors, briefly talked about the process in forming a fire territory.
“As you heard the chief and the trustee state, the whole reason they’re looking at this is to get additional funding for staffing for the fire department. This is not unusual in the state of Indiana,” she said. “We’re hearing the same things all over the state. There’s not enough money to fund public safety, not just fire but police.”
She said Indiana law provides two ways to get additional funding for fire services: through the establishment of a fire district, which is under control of the county; and a fire territory, which only takes at least two taxing units that touch boundaries to create it.
She said the town and township are both at the maximum that they can levy in property taxes.
“Creating a fire territory would allow these two taxing units to petition the state of Indiana and say, ‘Hey, we went through the statutory process, here’s the amount of property tax we need to adequately fund our fire services.’ And as long as the statutory process is followed, the state would likely approve that,” Sansone said.
Part of the process is to have three advertised public hearings. During those hearings, similar presentations would be made but Baker Tilly also would go through the financial impact analysis.
She provided a preliminary draft of that analysis Wednesday.
“What our analysis would provide to the public is, what would be the impact to a taxpayer in this entire fire territory service area. So we would look at different property values, different property types and explain that impact and give you examples of that impact,” she said, adding the analysis is required by state statute.
After the three public hearings, the town council and township board would then decide if they wanted to form a fire territory. If they decided to, Baker Tilly would assist with the petition to ask the state to approve a dedicated property tax levy for the fire territory. Any levies that the township currently has – like a cumulative fire and operating levy – would go away.
In very preliminary numbers, the fire department is looking at increasing its budget to almost $2 million, including fire operating and capital costs. It’s currently at $1.1 million.
“So we determined that we would need a property tax levy of about $1.5 million to cover those services, because there are other miscellaneous revenues involved. It’s not funded just by property tax,” she said. Those miscellaneous revenues include local income taxes and EMS fees.
If a person’s property is in the unincorporated part of the township, they are looking at a possible increase of almost 14% on their tax bill. For a $100,000 residential homestead, that’s about a $44 increase for the year. In the town, it’s about an 8% increase, or also $44. Those numbers are “very preliminary,” she said, as the process is in the very beginning stages.
There was about 40 minutes of questions and answers, with several people saying they’re OK with paying a little bit more in taxes to have more fire and EMS services.
Francis said, “You folks are protected by a phenomenal group of people. Our medics and our EMTs, firefighters, everybody from the top all the way down to the bottom are a phenomenal crew.”