Columbus Township board weighs eliminating paid firefighters

The fate of the full-time staff of Columbus Township Fire and Rescue is hanging in the balance as township leaders debate whether to cut costs.

Currently, the Columbus Township fire department relies on both volunteer firefighters and a staff of six full-time, paid firefighters who are on duty during regular business hours Monday through Friday, said Ben Jackson, Columbus Township trustee.

But during a budget discussion meeting Monday of the Columbus Township Advisory Board, board members Jimmy Green and Mike Shireman broached the topic of eliminating the full-time staff as a way of reducing township tax rates.

Instead of a full-time staff, the board members are advocating hiring a part-time staff of four or five firefighters who would still be paid but would not receive the benefits that are currently given to the six full-time employees.

Transitioning to a part-time staff would save the township an estimated $70,000, and eliminating benefits such as insurance would save an estimated $150,000, Shireman said.

The Columbus Township tax rate is 0.3459 per $100 of assessed value. In some instances, that’s approximately five to six times more than what residents in other Bartholomew County townships pay in property taxes, Shireman said.

For every $100,000 in assessed value on property in Columbus Township, about $300 goes to the fire department.

Columbus Township Fire Chief Dave Thompson said he is concerned about maintaining the department’s current quality level if the staff were to be reduced to only part time.

Right now, the department requires its full-time firefighters to have certain certifications, be trained emergency medical technicians and to undergo a training regimen, requirements that might be more difficult to enforce if the staff is only working part time and not receiving the same pay or benefits, the chief said.

Thompson also said the full-time staffers are career firefighters who expect to receive benefits just like any other worker at a full-time, career-driven job. Without those benefits, he said it could be difficult to attract well-trained firefighters to the department.

Further, Thompson said scheduling enough part-time firefighters to cover the station for 50 hours a week would be a nightmare because most of those part-time workers would have other jobs to schedule around.

The chief said he thinks the savings to the taxpayers would have to be significant to justify the transition to a part-time staff, and he has not yet become convinced.

Jackson acknowledged that Columbus Township’s property tax rates are the highest of any township in the county, but said he — along with both the paid and volunteer staff of the fire department — remains staunchly opposed to the elimination of the full-time staff because he thinks there are other ways to reduce taxes.

Specifically, Jackson said the township recently paid off a $330,000 fire loan. About $117,000 was being paid toward that debt each year. So now that the debt is paid off, the township can now put the $117,000 toward the fire department, the trustee said.

The township fire department also chose to consolidate a captain and maintenance position into one position as a cost-saving measure, Jackson said. Additionally, the Columbus Township Fire and Rescue is currently contracted out through the East Columbus Independent Fire Department, which has agreed to lower the cost of the contract, he said.

Each of those efforts combined will enable the township to reduce the fire levy property tax by 33 percent while also maintaining the six-person full-time staff, Jackson said.

But Shireman said he thinks Jackson’s plan is more a case of moving money around than it is of actually making cuts. The board member said if the township were to move forward with Jackson’s tax-cutting plan now, it would likely be back in today’s situation in a few years.

Shireman stressed that he and Green have nothing against the full-time firefighters but said their main concern was finding a lasting way to reduce property taxes.

But Jackson said his main concern is ensuring that residents do not see an increase in the department’s response times when a fire breaks out.

Columbus Township Fire serves an area that makes a circle around the Columbus city limits with two fire stations located in the city. Having a full-time staff enables the department to respond to calls in that designated area as quickly as possible, Jackson said.

However, eliminating the full-time staff could lead to a longer response time for township residents, which could increase the risk for significant fire damage, he said.

Additionally, the township trustee said that other county townships are protected by all-volunteer fire departments, which means that, at times, those departments may be unable to respond to a call if all of their volunteers are at work. In those situations, Jackson said the full-time staff of the Columbus Township department often steps in to help.

But both Shireman and Green pointed to Harrison Township as an example of a fire department that successfully works in its designated area with a part-time staff.

Additionally, the board members said Columbus Township’s response times would not change at all because the part-time firefighters would still be available during the day. Green said safety is his top priority, and he would not advocate for a plan that would put firefighters or residents at a greater risk.

Thompson acknowledged that response times likely would not change with a part-time staff, but the quality of work that the department could do on-site with fewer firefighters would likely be affected.

The fire chief also said he is confident that eliminating the full-time staff would result in Columbus Township Fire losing its ISO fire rating of 4, the same rating as the city fire department.

Losing that rating would cause insurance costs to go up in the township, Jackson said, which would likely offset any property tax savings.

But Green said the ISO rating affects everyone’s insurance differently and has little affect on insurance costs.

On his official Columbus Township Trustee Facebook page, Jackson called for residents who agreed with his position to write to him so he can share support for his proposal with the board. The trustee said he plans to present his proposal at the board’s Sept. 6 meeting, when it will hold a public budget hearing. A final vote will be taken Sept. 20.

Shireman and Green are currently the only Columbus Township Advisory Board members. The third member, Greg Simo, resigned from his position at Monday’s meeting because he is moving out of the township.

How the fire department is structured

While many municipal fire departments follow a 24-on, 48-off schedule, the Columbus Township Fire Department became a combination department in 2008. That means a full-time staff of firefighters are at the station during regular business hours throughout the week and are assisted by volunteer firefighters as those volunteers are available.

Columbus Township Trustee Ben Jackson said the township made the transition to a combination department in an attempt to deal with the fact that most volunteer firefighters have other full-time jobs and are unable to leave those jobs every time a call comes in.

What's next

Columbus Township Trustee Ben Jackson plans to present his 2017 budget during the Columbus Township Advisory Board’s Sept. 6 meeting, when it will hold a public budget hearing. A final vote will be taken Sept. 20.

Both meetings are scheduled to start at 6 p.m. Board meetings are generally held in township trustee’s office at 1333 Washington St., although town officials are considering moving them to a different venue to accommodate a large crowd.

Information: 812-372-8249

SHARE
Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.