Webster Council Kills Formation Of Fire Territory

North Webster Town Councilman Dan Thystrup (second from left) explains why he opposes the formation of the Tippecanoe Township-North Webster Fire Territory Wednesday. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.

Two North Webster councilmen killed the formation of a fire territory with Tippecanoe Township by not providing a second to a motion to proceed.

The town council and the township advisory board both had to approve a resolution and interlocal agreement at the end of Wednesday night’s nearly three-hour meeting for the fire territory’s creation to move forward. Wednesday’s meeting was the third public hearing on the matter, after an informational meeting on it was held in October.

The Tippecanoe Township Advisory Board voted 2-1 Wednesday to approve the resolution and interlocal agreement, with Jim Rhodes voting against both. Board members Jim Smith and Ed Clayton voted in favor.

It then moved to the North Webster Town Council, where Council President Lisa Strombeck made the motion to approve the resolution for the formation of the fire territory. Neither Councilman David Waliczek nor Dan Thystrup provided a second to her motion, so the motion died and the meeting abruptly ended.

An unidentified woman in the audience asked why the Town Council could just end it like that when the town has far less people than the township, but her question went unanswered. A fire territory can be established only by two political subdivisions that touch boundaries, such as a town and township, and both have to approve it.

Wednesday’s meeting started similarly to the last two meetings, although Fire Chief Jeremy Likens was not able to attend Wednesday because of a medical emergency. In Likens’ place, North Webster Fire Division Chief Cody Mangus gave Likens’ presentation on the challenges, goals, history and costs of operating the North Webster-Tippecanoe Township Fire Department.

Township Trustee Chris Francis explained why they wanted to form a fire territory, while Paige Sansone, from Baker Tilly financial consultants, reviewed the tax impact and other financial figures as she did at the previous two meetings.

Before the meeting was opened up to public comments, members of the Township Board and Council provided their thoughts.

Clayton explained that if the territory was formed, a territory board would have oversight of the territory’s budget. Its board would include two members of the Township Board and two from the Council, with the fifth member being “an independent person.” Francis later said the fifth member would be from the Council one year and the Township Board the next year.

“We control the budget. The fire department can ask for everything that they want. It would be us as elected officials to keep that in check. If I’m on there, I can guarantee it would be kept in check,” Clayton said.

Rhodes then gave a 13-minute speech on why he was opposed to it. He said that while he doesn’t have all the answers, “we can’t be everything to everybody.” He said the community of North Webster thrives on two things – the lake trade and farms – and if they formed the fire territory, “I feel like we’re biting the hand that feeds us.”

He said when the fire territory was first proposed 10 years ago, he was against it then and he still was. He talked about the rising costs of everything and taxes and that the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t helping.

“The times are uncertain and I can’t support this in good (conscience),” Rhodes said.

Clayton then responded that while he knows a tax increase would not be welcome, “The one thing that I do know is that  there’s not one person in this room that wants to see our services dropped. Without doing something, we run that risk. And I don’t want to be the one when something happens, and somebody comes and says, ‘Why didn’t I have an EMT? Why didn’t I have a fireman? Why did my situation get out of control?’ And I don’t want to be the one that says, ‘Well, it came down to dollars and cents and your situation, well, we just couldn’t handle it.’ And I don’t want to be the one to do that.”

He said he fully supports the formation of the fire territory.

Smith said he had to educate himself on the whole process just like everybody else.

“What it really came down, to me, is, do we want to keep EMS local? And when I presented it that way when I was talking to different constituents, 99% of them, I would say, said, ‘Yes, we want to keep it local. We don’t want to wait that extra whatever it’s going to be to have who knows come to our emergency,” Smith said.

As a Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Office deputy, Smith said he’s been on emergencies waiting an extended timeframe and it’s not good. He said you feel terrible for the people you’re trying to render care for.

“So with that, I don’t know how you put a price on someone’s life,” Smith said.

Comments then moved to the Town Council, with Thystrup going first.

Thystrup, who is originally from Denmark, said he came to the United States because it’s the best country in the world.

“What we’re doing to ourselves right now is we’re ruining that because what’s happening here … we have raised our taxes, we have raised our problems, our cost of living, our NIPSCO bill because there’s more regulations, it’s more expensive … everybody now has to work harder, work longer to make ends meet. There’s not enough time to have fun, to volunteer, to spend extra money on other things,” he said.

He called the formation of a fire territory “just a band-aid” because it doesn’t address the territory’s financial problems for the long-term. He said they needed to think outside of the box and compared the creation of a fire territory and raising taxes for it to socialism in Denmark. “We’re being stupid, guys.”

Waliczek said he saw both sides of the issue. “I feel your pain, and I feel the pain of raising taxes, but I think Jim hit it right on the head. I agree with you 100%,” he said.

Strombeck said having been born and raised in North Webster, she understood the importance of keeping services local.

Town Clerk-Treasurer Betsy Luce, while not a voting member of the Council, offered her opinion in favor of the fire territory. “I can not imagine any greater need of tax dollars than taking care of the people in our community,” she said.

The floor was then opened to the public for their comments.

“We can’t put a price tag on someone’s life,” a woman said.

Tom Nelson asked if the fire territory was a guarantee to fix the problems.

Former Wawasee School Board member Brian Dawes argued with several people’s comments. He said, whenever a government official tells him they want to keep everyone safe, he wants to tell them to quit lying to him “because there’s no way anybody can guarantee that. I don’t care if we have two ambulances, six ambulances, you can not guarantee that you’re going to keep everybody safe, so stop using that as an argument.”

He later argued that the township failed to look at all their options, but when someone asked Dawes if he had presented any or had any to present, he responded he wasn’t prepared to do that and the meetings didn’t allow for that.

Mike Wyrick perhaps drew the biggest applause from the dozens of people in attendance.

In part, referencing an earlier discussion about the fire territory’s ISO rating which has improved from a 9/10 to a 6, he said, “What you’re talking about on the ISO protection class rate is of vital importance for all of you to understand in this argument. If the class slips back to a 7 or 9 or 10, your insurance is going to go up to just about an amount that will be equal to almost half of what this tax increase is. So, one way or another, you’re going to spend more money because they’re bleeding people, and since the people are leaving, and they don’t have the manpower, that ISO class is going to go back to a 7, possibly an 8, and God forbid a 9 or 10. When it goes to a 9 or 10, not only does the price go up, but many companies will drop from the market. They’re not going to write insurance in a class 9 or 10.”

He said the tax increase that would come with the formation of a fire territory would offset what property owners would otherwise pay in insurance.

“At least with a tax increase, you’ve got the stop-gap with it. But the insurance costs, you’ve still got that expense that’s going to continue, right along with their rate increase,” Wyrick stated.

He also said everyone would like another answer to the problem, but no one has offered one. He urged both boards to pass the fire territory.

Francis concluded the public comments, noting that the fire department’s budget is already upside down. He said the township is required to provide fire service, while the town is not. He noted the days of fundraisers are over because townspeople are already paying taxes.

“We’ve all identified we have a problem, but no one provided any solutions,” he said at one point, adding that after all of his research, the formation of a fire territory was the only one he could come up with.

“This vote is about our futures, our families and our residents,” he said.