Hillsboro, townships adopt fire protection plan

After more than two years of negotiation, the city of Hills?boro, the city of Lehigh and four surrounding rural township boards have a new fire protection agreement.

The Hillsboro City Council and elected representatives from Lehigh, Liberty, Menno and Risley townships approved the agreement during the council?s Aug. 20 meeting.

The remaining partner, the city of Lehigh, is expected to ratify the agreement when the Lehigh council meets Sept. 12.

Representatives from all participating entities were present at the meeting, essentially filling the small council room.

Follow?ing an initial introduction to the final document by City Administrator Larry Paine, the Hillsboro council recessed for 20 minutes while township and Lehigh city representatives gathered with Paine in a side room to address any remaining questions.

The representatives from each township then met in separate huddles to cast their official votes.

When the council meeting resumed, members Byron McCarty, Bob Watson and Marlene Fast voted 3-0 to authorize Mayor Delores Dalke to enter into the agreement with the other parties. Councilor Shelby Dirks was absent.

The agreement, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2014, designates the Hillsboro Fire Department as the provider of firefighting services for the coverage area, which in Menno Township includes only nine sections.

Other provisions include:

? fire operations will be controlled by the Hillsboro fire chief, currently Ben Steketee;

? the city of Hillsboro will keep financial and operational records of the activities in the city and townships;

? a new fund will be created within the Hillsboro city budget for the purpose of collecting revenues and making expenditures relating to replacement of fire apparatus;

? an advisory board to be appoin?ted by the mayor of Hillsboro, and comprised of representatives from the partner entities, will make recommendations to the city regarding fire department budget needs for the city and townships;

? the city of Hillsboro will collect fees from the townships and the city of Lehigh in proportion to their assessed valuation in order to fund the department and fund the equipment replacement program. The total valuation of all participating entities was estimated at $27 million;

? the city of Hillsboro will credit the value of equipment owned by the townships to the equipment replacement fund over a five-year period without interest;

? proceeds from the sale of any fire equipment will be placed in the new equipment-replacement fund;

? should the agreement be terminated, the remaining financial obligations of the townships for replacement of equipment will be paid by the townships;

? the maximum fees to be charged the townships will not exceed 5 mills.

As for the financial obligation of the townships, Paine noted, ?The townships do not understand we cannot set the mill levy for this activity. What this means is that we will calculate what we think the mill levy might be and not exceed that number for each budget period.

?As the assessed value for the city of Hillsboro increases?because of the hospital and other business development?the townships will be paying a smaller percentage amount.?

One key difference between the current agreement and the one approved last week is that some equipment had been owned by the city of Hills?boro and some by the townships; under the new agreement, all equipment will be owned by the city of Hills?boro.

The equipment-replacement fund is another new feature and was a major factor that prompted working on a new agreement, according to Carol Duerksen, representing Lehigh Township.

?Neither city nor the townships had enough ?set aside? for purchasing major pieces of equipment,? she said. ?With the high replacement cost, the townships were unable to secure funding because they were not a legal entity.?

One consequence of the new agreement still to be worked out concerns the status of Lehigh?s city fire department. Steketee said after the meeting that one scenario under consideration would have some of Lehigh?s fire equipment remain in Lehigh to help speed up responses in that community. Members of the town?s volunteer department would be invited to join the Hillsboro department.

In other business, the Hillsboro council approved Mayor Dalke?s appointment of Dana Maxfield to the city recreation commission. She succeeds Randy Brazil, who has moved out of town.

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