A rural Bartholomew County fire department will seek a separate tax rate to eliminate their reliance on township-level financial support.

The Southwest Volunteer Fire Department is preparing to ask the Bartholomew County commissioners to create a fire district for Ohio and Jackson townships southwest of Columbus, fire chief Billy Koons said.

Although a date before the commissioners has not yet been set, a public meeting to outline the proposal is scheduled for March 6, beginning at 7 p.m., inside the fire station south of Ogilville, located at 8500 S. State Road 58.

Currently, the annual budget for the 28-member department is $78,000. But only $17,000 was provided last year through the office of Jackson Township Trustee Bruce Bartell and about $15,000 from Ohio Township Trustee Jo Flohr, Koons said.

In order to make up for the shortfall, his firefighters rely on grants and fundraisers, he said.

Annual efforts to increase Ohio Township’s portion of funding to $50,000 have been thwarted by permanent state property tax caps enacted in 2009 and 2010, Flohr said.

In addition, ongoing statehouse efforts to either weaken or eliminate township government have also provided an incentive for rural departments to attempt to move away from township government funding, Koons and Flohr said.

“I’m convinced they will eventually get rid of township trustees,” Flohr said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

A decision to seek a separate tax rate was made after a year-and-a-half of weighing all options, Koons said.

A rate of 10 to 14 cents per $100 assessed valuation has been discussed, Flohr said.

A specific rate request will be established with the assistance of Gabriel P. Gerth, consultant with the Reedy Financial Group in Seymour, Koons said.

Capt. Cody Herkamp, who has served the Hamilton Township Volunteer Fire Department in north central Jackson County for 17 years, has been heavily involved in the Southwest Fire Department proposal, Koons said.

Hamilton and Southwest frequently supply mutual aid to one another, and have established close ties, he said.

But more importantly, Hamilton Township has already taken the same route that Southwest has just embarked upon, Koons said.

Herkamp’s department received permission in 2010 to establish its own separate tax rate. Prior to that, his Cortland-based department was operating on a $25,000 annual budget, he said. But in 2016, the most recent year figures are available, Hamilton Township firefighters received $147,514 in total revenue, according to state financial records.

Although several Jackson County residents initially voiced strong objections, opposition began to soften after it was explained that township taxes — as well as possibly home insurance costs — would be reduced by the change, Herkamp said.

Last year, the annual cost for fire protection paid by individual families within Hamilton Township averaged about $25 a year, Herkamp said.

“I bet there are plenty of folks in Bartholomew County that spend more than that at one fish fry,” he said.

But the strongest argument made by Southwest firefighters has to do with saving lives — including their own.

If low budgets mean departmental equipment and personal gear are not routinely replaced, the possibility of death or permanent injury to firefighters and the residents they protect increases significantly, according to Flohr and Herkamp.

Many rural fire chiefs have said that expensive but necessary training of all volunteers at regular intervals is also vitally important.

All these concerns, as well as rising insurance costs and manpower shortages, will likely result in several other rural departments seeking the same course of action as Southwest in the near future, Flohr and Herkamp said.

About Southwest Fire Department

Established in 1942, the all-volunteer Southwest Volunteer Fire Department is made up of 25 to 30 members who respond to about 160 runs each year in southwestern Bartholomew County.

With stations in both the Ogilville and Waymansville areas, Southwest provides fire, rescue and medical first-responder protection across more than 40 square miles of Ohio and Jackson Townships.

Source: Indiana Fire Trucks website

If you go

What: Public meeting by the Southwest Volunteer Fire Department on its proposal to create a new fire district, along with separate tax rate, in Ohio and Jackson townships.

When 7 p.m. March 6

Where: Fire station and community center, located south of Ogilville at 8500 S. State Road 58.

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.