Township agree on fire protection extension, but controversy heats up
KFD to cover Darrough Chapel, Tall Oaks
through remainder of 2017
By George Myers KOKOMO – City officials
and Center Township representatives came to an agreement Friday to
temporarily extend Kokomo Fire Department coverage to the township’s
unincorporated residents, but the situation is far from resolved.
An agreement was reached,
as the clock ticked toward a 4 p.m. deadline, for the KFD to cover
unincorporated Center Township, including the Darrough Chapel and Tall
Oaks subdivisions, through the remainder of 2017. The existing contract
between the two sides was set to expire Sunday.
In exchange, the city
will take over ownership of loaned equipment from Center Township,
including a fire truck, a hazmat trailer and more, all of which was
previously scheduled to be purchased by the city.
The two sides will now
continue negotiations toward a multi-year contract to maintain KFD
coverage in those areas. Center Township Trustee Dr. Robert Lee
said he will use the extension to undertake “increased feasibility
studies on…where we need to go and what we need to do” for a long-term
But things have gotten
off to a rocky start.
During a Center Township
Board meeting held Friday afternoon, members signed off on the
agreement, which was then rushed to City Hall, and discussed their
opinions and frustrations about the ongoing fire coverage controversy.
“I feel like this is
strong-armed robbery,” said Center Township Board member Linda Koontz.
After the meeting, Lee
also made clear how contentious the issue has become for those within
Center Township’s government.
“We tried the gentlemanly
way, and we tried the way of respect and you try that as far as you
can,” he said. “Eventually, sometimes it gets down to where the rubber
grips the road. Well, the rubber and the road is gripping right now.”
News broke last month
that officials from the city of Kokomo and Center Township of Howard
County were negotiating a new fire protection contract which, if agreed
upon, would continue KFD service in the township’s unincorporated areas.
Notably, the KFD
presently covers the roughly 4.5 square miles of unincorporated
property in Center Township, which includes the Tall Oaks and Darrough
Chapel neighborhoods and swaths of farmland.
Inside city limits, the
KFD covers about 36 square miles, according to Kokomo Mayor Greg
Goodnight. That puts unincorporated Center Township at roughly 10
percent of the KFD coverage area, a figure that’s also found itself at
the center of the fire protection payment conversation.
In a previous interview,
Goodnight explained that the city’s fire budget for 2017 is just under
$10.5 million. In addition, he noted, the fire pension is roughly $3.9
Combined, that puts this
year’s cost at $14.38 million, a figure Goodnight said he’s explained
to Center Township officials. The city’s 2018 budget has the cost at
just below $14 million.
“That’s what I explained,
that’s the true cost,” he said. “That’s what it costs all taxpayers in
the city, because it’s a city budget. To cover their 10 percent …
that’d be somewhere around $1.4 million, a little over $1.4 million.
“That’s the true cost.
And over 90 percent of that is personnel costs of the fire budget, for
active and retired firefighters.”
In comparison, the Center
Township Board has approved a 2018 budget of $2.4 million, including
$500 bonuses for township employees. A total of $100,000 is budgeted
for fire protection.
Center Township now pays
under $100,000 annually for fire protection services.
Many on Center Township’s
side have also noted that a significant portion of the unincorporated
area is open space without structures, arguing that those areas aren’t
as cumbersome to cover as parts of the city.
In an interview Friday,
Goodnight referenced the existing open and wooded space that also
exists inside city limits, and highlighted fire responses that happen
even in what some would call the “country,” like car and field fires.
Goodnight also maintained
his focus on square-mileage, and said that he hasn't received much
feedback from Center Township officials.
“That’s all I did, was
provide them the cost and the square miles,” said Goodnight. “They
never made a counter-offer, but like anybody else I’m going to
entertain reasonable offers. I’ve never had a figure in my head, but
they’ve never given me anything to digest either.”
In comparison, Lee, who
seemed to dispute the notion that there hasn’t been a back-and-forth,
called the word fair “an ambiguous term” when asked what he believes
the township should pay for KFD coverage.
He said other
determinants, outside of square-mileage, can include population,
assessed value, dollars-per-population and more, which may better serve
Center Township’s position.
Center Township Board
Member Linda Koontz said she believes the city is trying to get Center
Township to spend down it’s more than $3 million rainy day fund, which
township officials say cannot be utilized for fire protection due to
limitations like a max fire levy of $75,000 for the unincorporated
areas, say Center Township officials, prohibit them from spending
anywhere close to the figures that have been publicly discussed.
“Now, it’s like, ‘Well
you’ve got extra money in your account,’ which we have been trying to
spend down responsibly, ‘so now we’re going to mess around with figures
and try to make it look like we should get $1.3 or [$1.4] million a
year out of you until we’ve tapped you down to where you don’t have it,
and then we’ll talk again,’” said Koontz, referencing what she sees as
the city’s perspective.
“That’s B.S.,” she added,
to which Center Township Board Secretary Steve Geiselman called “simply
not true.” Geiselman, who has publicly touched on the option of
slightly increasing taxes for fire protection, has argued in favor of
the township sticking with the KFD.
Goodnight later argued
that the township’s financial standing has nothing to do with the
“It costs taxpayers
within the city of Kokomo almost $14 million to run the fire
department. It’s not based on how much money the city of Kokomo has, or
how much money Center Township has,” said Goodnight. “That’s the cost
of full-time fire protection, so it’s not based on checkbook balances.”
“[Koontz] doesn’t have to
contract with us,” he added later. “What they do have to decide is, do
they contract with us or do they provide volunteer fire protection?
Those are their choices. If [Koontz] or any of the other members don’t
think there is a value in a full-time fire department based on that
cost, then they can make an alternative decision…The 10 other township
trustees use volunteers.”
Later, Koontz said she
would never vote to pay the city more than $100,000 per year for fire
protection. Center Township Board President Napoleon Leal also said
that “as long as I’m here I will not support a $1.4 million cost to
provide protection, whether it be 10 percent of 20 percent.”
Leal also said that “it’s
unfair what we’re being put through, and you folks are put through,”
referencing a group of four Center Township residents in attendance at
“Even if we wanted to pay
$1.4 million, the state is not going to allow us to do that,” Leal
Goodnight, in response to
those comments, explained his thought process on providing fire
protection to Center Township’s unincorporated areas.
“I can’t give free fire
protection to people in the unincorporated areas, I can’t provide free
fire protection to the people of Burlington, I can’t give free fire
protection to the people of Galveston or Russiaville, and no one else
does,” he said.
“No other government unit
is expected to provide free services to other government units. For
example, [Center Township officials] don’t provide fire protection to
people outside of Center Township. Linda Koontz doesn’t provide fire
protection to Howard Township, and she doesn’t provide services to
people in Clay Township or Harrison Township. Why would she expect me
Koontz also expressed
frustrations that the unincorporated areas, specifically Darrough
Chapel, haven’t been annexed by the city.
But in an interview
earlier this month, Goodnight said annexing Darrough Chapel is not
currently on his radar.
“The last annexation that
took place was Cotswold Hills, and that was a voluntary annexation,” he
said. “No one from the Darrough Chapel neighborhood has come to me
interested in annexing into the city, and I’ve got a lot of other
things on my plate. That’s not one of them that is on there.”
Koontz also broached the
topic of contracting with volunteer fire departments, a notion that has
been strongly rejected by residents of unincorporated Center Township.
Lee acknowledged after the meeting that he has explored the possibility
of shifting to volunteer fire departments.
Notably, a group of
Darrough Chapel residents attended a meeting in late August to let the
Center Township Board know they wanted continued fire service through
the KFD. Some of the same residents attended a subsequent Common
Council meeting to express the same concerns.
One of those residents,
Vicki Douglas, told both the Common Council and the township board that
Darrough Chapel homes will be in danger if the neighborhood isn’t
protected by the KFD. On Friday, Douglas also spoke of seeking
annexation for the Darrough Chapel neighborhood.
the city fire protection,” she said to the Common Council. “However,
we’re quite concerned that if that is not negotiated in good faith and
we lose that, that our homes are in peril. Because Greentown and Taylor
Township volunteer [fire departments] are not going to be adequate
protection for our homes.”
“We don’t want to hear
volunteer. I’m sorry, we don’t want to hear volunteer,” Douglas also
noted to the township board.
Another Darrough Chapel
resident, who did not provide his name, expressed a similar sentiment
to the township board last month.
Lee, who said he has
“investigated” the option of contracting with volunteer departments,
would not confirm which specific departments have been explored as
options. Volunteer fire departments in Galveston, Taylor Township and
Greentown have previously been discussed as options.
Lee went on to say that
“everything’s open,” and confirmed that the township is also exploring
separate ambulance services.
“To say that we
would have to wait for a volunteer fire department, whether it be
Greentown of Taylor [Township], that’s really not acceptable,” said the
Darrough Chapel resident. “It doesn’t sound like the right answer to
us. A few years ago, my neighbor’s house burned down. With the winds
and so on, if the fire department hadn’t gotten there as quickly as
they had and put that fire out, my house very likely would have been
the next to go.
“Now, if I was waiting
for a volunteer fire department from 10, 15 miles away, that would have
made a huge difference.”
Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @gpmyerskt.