Townships propose to form new fire district

The Hillsboro City Council was introduced to a proposal at its May 3 meeting to create a new fire district that would include the cities of Hillsboro and Lehigh and all or part of several surrounding rural townships.

The proposal was presented by the Combined Township Board, an ad hoc group representing the four townships that currently contract with the city of Hills?boro for fire protection: Liberty, Risley, Lehigh and Menno.

The primary accomplishment of the plan, if approved as presented, would be to create a separate taxing entity large enough to generate sufficient revenue to replace large equipment, particularly firetrucks.

The projected costs for the four trucks currently on the replacement schedule range from $65,000 to $270,000.

Clarity needed

Forming a unified fire district also would bring clarity to how the city and townships work together to provide fire protection to their citizens.

Dwight Flaming, a Menno Township resident who led the presentation, said the city of Hillsboro and townships have a general understanding how they have operated together over the years based on old agreements.

?We have a good working-relationship with the city and between the townships and the fire department,? he said. ?But the bottom line is, we do not currently have a signed working agreement in force.?

Under the old agreements, the city provides manpower, gear, insurance, vehicle maintenance and housing and has purchased some of the vehicles.

The townships? primary responsbility has been to purchase fire protection vehicles particularly suited for rural needs. In fact, the townships are in the process of finalizing the purchase of a $44,000 brush truck, Flaming said.

?Each township is billed a $350 fee for protection, plus a per-run of $200, and then on top of that is $1,150 that each township is expected to put in for a capital outlay fund,? Flaming said.

Currently, the four township boards operate cooperatively for fire protection, but also independently, making the process of purchasing new vehicles cumber?some and sometimes contentious, particularly as the cost of new vehicles increases.

?That?s really what?s driven us to open this up to look at the big picture?the cost of equipment got so expensive,? Flaming said. ?As we looked at the cost replacing the fire truck, suddenly the old system, where we were all operating basically on a handshake, doesn?t work well when you?re talking about a quarter-million dollars.?

The new district

The new fire district, as proposed, would include all of Liberty, Risley and Lehigh townships, part of Menno, Wilson and Gale townships, and the cities of Hillsboro and Lehigh.

The district would be an independent taxing entity with an elected board with the fire chief serving as an ex officio member.

The intial plan is to assess a levy of 5 mills, which was estimated to generate about $136,000 to use for an equipment reserve plus operating costs. It could also finance a new facility for equipment.

?You know all too well that the fire station is going to need some changes at some point,? Flaming told the council. ?We know there?s going to be some equipment needs. By working together, we feel like there?s a big opportunity here to provide better service so that high standard of protection can continue.?

Work ahead

Flaming said the proposal is in conceptual form; many details need to be worked through, including the actual boundaries of the fire district.

For that reason, Flaming said the group?s only request at the Tuesday meeting was for the council to consider appointing representation to the study group that also would include representitives from the townships and cities involved, plus the Hillsboro fire chief.

?We?re beyond notes on a napkin on this, but we aren?t in a printed budget mode quite yet,? Flaming said. ?We?re a long ways from that. We?ve got to get a better handle on how that all would work for the citizens that would be included.?

The group set July 1, 2012, as the target date for completing the work and having the fire district in operation.

If the plan is developed and approved by the participating parties, and by the county commission, the target date for implementation is July 1, 2012.

Flaming said the group realizes it will take time to work through the details of the plan and then to get the endorsement of all parties.

?We feel like it?s very important that we do it right?that?s key,? Flaming said. ?The end result is that the proper decision is made for the people we?re here to serve, whether it?s in the city or within the townships.?

Flaming and the Combined Township Board is planning to make a similar presentation to the Lehigh City Council later this month, as well as to inform the residents of participating townships.

The Hillsboro council, meanwhile, will discuss the proposal in a future work session, according to Larry Paine, city administrator.

Mayor Delores Dalke told the group, ?You?ve been involved with this for months, but this is our first time to hear about it. We need time to study and talk about it.?

Joining Flaming at the council meeting as Com?bined Town?ship Board representatives were: Paul Penner, Risley Town?ship; Carol Duerk?sen, Menno Town?ship; and Jared Jost, Liberty Township.

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