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Source: Kokomo Tribune

Volunteer fire departments to cover Tall Oaks, Darrough Chapel in 2018 despite residents' concerns

Center Township, city officials spar over failed negotiations

By George Myers
Residents of Darrough Chapel and Tall Oaks, in unincorporated Center Township, learned Thursday that they will receive coverage from volunteer fire departments in 2018, and not the Kokomo Fire Department.

The Center Township Board announced  in a special meeting Thursday morning, attended by roughly 20 community members, that agreements had been reached for the Greentown Volunteer Fire Department to cover Darrough Chapel and the Galveston Volunteer Fire Department to cover Tall Oaks.

The decision creates a wide rift between residents in the unincorporated areas of Center Township, who have long bemoaned the idea of switching to volunteer coverage, and township officials, who believe the city of Kokomo priced them out of KFD’s services.

Contracts, however, have yet to be finalized, and board members will meet again at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 27 to announce contractual details.

Initial contracts unveiled by the board Thursday included a one-year agreement with Galveston worth $25,000 and a five-year agreement with Greentown worth $57,000 in the first year, with a 5 percent increase each subsequent year.

But members decided that because residents have made clear their intention to seek annexation for portions of Darrough Chapel they would instead seek two one-year agreements. Notably, the KFD would cover any areas annexed by the city.

In an interview, Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight confirmed that the city has received a petition for the annexation of part of Darrough Chapel.

“If they request to be annexed, yes, we are willing to bring them into the city,” he said. “But we are not going to do any – we are not going to take the initiative to do so. These are completely voluntary decisions by the residents.”

During Thursday’s meeting, multiple residents spoke out against the way Center Township officials, specifically Trustee Dr. Robert Lee, handled negotiations with the city of Kokomo. Those negotiations – according to correspondence between Lee and Goodnight obtained by the Tribune – were brief and unsuccessful.

Only one formal communication, a letter dated Dec. 12, was provided by Lee to city officials. The letter said that if the city could not match a $100,000 offer for annual coverage, the township would go elsewhere.

In a return letter, Goodnight, who had publicly discussed a $1.4 million figure, declined the proposal.

Goodnight created his total from the fact unincorporated Center Township comprises roughly 10 percent of the KFD coverage area. And with the KFD budget at $14 million for 2018, Goodnight publicly broached a $1.4 million total.

Some associated with Center Township have argued with the square-mileage approach, saying it would be more accurate to instead count homes, population, assessed value or something similar.

Others on Thursday criticized the township’s decision to give roughly $300,000 in loaned equipment to the city to cover the last three months of 2017, including a fire truck, a hazmat trailer and more, all of which was previously scheduled to be purchased by the city.

But mostly, residents again expressed concerns about the switch from the KFD to volunteer coverage and the increased response times it's expected to bring.

Homeowners could also see a bump in insurance costs, as the Insurance Information Institute says on its website: “You may pay less for insurance if you buy a house close to a fire hydrant or in a community that has a professional rather than a volunteer fire department.”

“I want each and every one of you to put a price tag on somebody’s life,” said township resident Charles Morgan. “I don’t care about that house of mine, if it burns to the ground. That don’t matter, that’s what we all have insurance for.

“But I do care about the lives that could be lost because…something’s not right here.”

However, various Center Township officials argued that the city was not proactive enough in initiating negotiations, which they believe was a precedent set during negotiation periods under Jean Lushin, the township’s former trustee.

Lee said that contracts in 1999, 2005 and 2012 between the two sides were all initiated when the Kokomo Board of Public Works and city officials came to the township. Goodnight called those claims “not true,” saying Lushin was always the first to call.

Goodnight also questioned why the township initiated formal talks with volunteer fire departments but not the city. Taylor Township Trustee Paul Munoz confirmed that Lee contacted him to discuss fire protection for Darrough Chapel; the two sides then scheduled a sit-down meeting, and Taylor Township later drafted a proposal. 

“I never received a formal proposal, so I responded in kind” to the city, said Lee on Thursday.

One Center Township board member, however, argued that state statute places the burden of fire protection, and subsequent contract negotiations, squarely on the shoulders of township officials.

“At the end of the day, we are the ones responsible for providing fire protection, not the city, not anybody else,” said board member Steve Geiselman. “So we would have to be more proactive in that than the people, the organization…we are trying to purchase the product from.”

“The thing that really has me, that bothers me about this, that’s frustrating, is that every person that’s sitting at this table…we all enjoy the protection from professional career firefighters,” he added. “And we’re telling these people who don’t happen to live in the City of Kokomo that we can’t try to work out a way that they enjoy the same fire protection. And I think that’s wrong.”

Geiselman, a city employee, also expressed his belief that increased negotiations could have led to a middle ground – possibly around $500,000. At one point, Geiselman suggested that the township could have increased the tax levy to raise additional money for fire protection from the KFD.

Similarly, Goodnight said the city “of course” would have been willing to try to find common ground if Center Township had started a back-and-forth. He is still open to idea.

“If [Lee] did it tomorrow, yea, we’d look at it,” he noted. “I just told him, that's one-tenth of the total cost. …So yes, of course we’d be willing to look at a different number. But it’d have to be something that is reasonable.”

Center Township Comptroller Andrew Durham explained, though, that the process of significantly raising the tax levy would be difficult. To get to $500,000, he said, the township would have to get permission from the Statehouse, something that's not assured to happen.

And one township board member, Linda Koontz, even insinuated that Goodnight’s role as mayor should be restricted through state statute.

“One of the things I have learned through the tenure of Greg Goodnight is statutes need to be changed about the authority the mayor has, because it is tremendous authority,” she said. “And it’s pretty much unchecked.”

In response, Goodnight questioned Koontz’s thought process.

“I find it odd she simultaneously wants me to take the lead on fire negotiations yet complains that I have too much authority, when I’ve already given up my authority over the dispatch services, I’ve given up my authority on control over EMA, over weights and measures, all voluntarily,” he said.

“And I’ve given up my authority now to respond to fires in the unincorporated areas of Center Township. I don’t see any logic in her comments.”

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gpmyerskt.

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