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Source: Kokomo Tribune

Kokomo, Center 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 contract.

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 million.

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 statute limitations.

Other state-enacted 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 ongoing situation.

“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 Friday’s meeting.

“Even if we wanted to pay $1.4 million, the state is not going to allow us to do that,” Leal added.

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 to?”

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.

 “We’ve appreciated 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.”

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

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