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Source: Kokomo Tribune

Unincorporated Center Township likely headed for volunteer fire coverage in 2018

Board to meet Thursday to make official decision on 'fire contracts'

By George Myers

Residents of the Darrough Chapel and Tall Oaks subdivisions will learn Thursday how their homes will receive fire coverage in 2018.

Early indications, however, point toward an answer that many of those same residents, living in unincorporated Center Township, have already argued fervently against.

The Center Township Board will meet at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the Center Township Trustee Office, 213 E. Jefferson St., to discuss “special business,” specifically “fire contracts for the unincorporated areas of the township,” according to a meeting notice distributed this week.

For months, the issue of 2018 fire coverage in the two subdivisions has been both a concern and controversy, as residents wondered whether city officials and township representatives could come to an agreement to continue Kokomo Fire Department coverage in the unincorporated areas.

The other option, one met with unease by unincorporated residents, is volunteer fire protection. Service from volunteer fire departments in Galveston, Taylor Township and Greentown have previously been discussed as options.

Notably, in late September, the two sides came to an agreement to temporarily extend KFD coverage to the township’s unincorporated residents – but the issue was then far from resolved.

An agreement was reached, as the clock ticked toward a 4 p.m. Sept. 29 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 Oct. 1.

In exchange, the city took over ownership of roughly $300,000 in 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 agreed to continue negotiations toward a multi-year contract to maintain KFD coverage in those areas. At the time, Center Township Trustee Dr. Robert Lee said he would 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.

Lee did not respond to a request for comment sent Tuesday.

Those negotiations – according to correspondence between Lee and Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight obtained by the Tribune – were brief and unsuccessful.

Initially, news broke in early September that officials from the city and township were negotiating a new fire protection contract which, if agreed upon, would continue KFD service in the township’s unincorporated areas into 2018.

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 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 approved a 2018 budget of $2.4 million, including $500 bonuses for township employees. A total of $100,000 is budgeted for fire protection.

That discrepancy – from $100,000 to $1.4 million, a figure described as “strong-armed robbery” by Center Township Board member Linda Koontz – seems to have proved too large.

In a letter dated Dec. 12, Lee said the $1.4 million number is “significantly more expensive than previous years and well beyond Center Township’s budgetary allocation for fire protection. Consequently, Center Township respectfully declines” to pay that amount.

In a public records request to Kokomo corporation counsel Beth Copeland, the Tribune requested records and copies of “any official communication between [Goodnight] and [Lee] during 2017." The Dec. 12 letter was the first official written communication between the two sides following the Sept. 29 agreement to continue negotiations.

 Download PDF Fire protection letters between Lee, Goodnight
Lee later said in his letter that Center Township had “explored other bids from capable fire protection service providers” and offered the city the “opportunity to match the current $100,000 quote we have received.”

“If the City cannot offer the price requested, Center Township will [go] elsewhere for fire protection in the unconsolidated areas of the township,” Lee wrote.

Koontz has also 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.

However, in response to Lee’s letter dated Dec. 15, Goodnight said that “we anticipated hearing from you well before receiving your letter on December 14.”

But most important, Goodnight said that in response to the proposal of a $100,000 per year fire protection agreement he “cannot in good conscience agree to those terms.”

“The City of Kokomo employs paid, professional union firefighters. You are asking for their services at a drastically subsidized rate in order to match a quote provided to you from non-union, volunteer fire departments,” he added.

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 Sept. 29, 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.

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

Letters from the City and Center Township (Note: Read PDF page 2 first.)

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