Fighting words: Most township residents speak out to keep full-time firefighters

The full-time positions of six professional firefighters in Columbus Township have come under fire over the past two months from two government leaders.  But now, those two elected officials have come under fire themselves.

The revived discussion drew 80 people to a 90-minute township board budget hearing Tuesday, when a vast majority of those who spoke opposed a proposal by township advisory board members Jimmy Green and Mike Shireman to strip six Columbus Township Fire and Rescue firefighters of their full-time wages plus medical and other benefits, moving them to part-time status.

While unable to give specific details on potential savings or proposed rates, both Green and Shireman said the Columbus Township tax rate — which has been five to six times higher than other townships in the county — needs to be reduced to lower taxes.

After Shireman stated that property taxes are especially burdensome on farmers such as himself, Columbus Township firefighter Barry Henderson responded that when any elected official talks about personal gain from his own proposal, it’s “extremely troublesome.”

Eighteen of the 20 speakers Tuesday night said they want to keep the full-time firefighters their tax dollars have supported for the past eight years. The remaining two speakers spoke out against taxes in general, rather than endorse specific proposals.

With the retirement of a $330,000 debt at the end of this year, Columbus Township trustee Jackson said he is already advocating a tax cut for 2017. Jackson is calling for cutting the Fire Fund tax rate in half, which Jackson said will make the rate comparable to Harrison Township, which also employs full-time firefighters.

Jackson is proposing a $599,500 firefighting fund next year — a 7.7 percent reduction from what had been budgeted for 2016. His proposed 2017 budget includes an additional $50,000 for equipment maintenance and upgrades.

Retired Indiana State Police trooper Tammy Watson said she applauded less dramatic efforts by Jackson to cut costs, including reducing one firefighter’s salary by about $5,300.

“But to cut costs at the expense of our full-time fire department is moving backwards in a community that should be looking to move forward,” Watson said, receiving a strong round of applause from the audience.

About five individuals at the meeting indicated they had seen their property insurance rates drop after results of an Insurance Services Office (ISO) audit were announced last spring.  The audit shows Columbus Township Fire & Rescue is now among the top 12 percent of fire departments in Indiana in terms of overall quality and performance.

In order to maintain that ISO rating, Columbus Township would have to hire three part-timers for every full-time firefighter currently in place, Columbus Township Fire Chief Dave Thompson said.

When other fire departments have attempted to switch to part-time firefighters and medics, they’ve discovered they can’t keep a staff, Thompson said.

“Turnover rates are a nightmare,” Thompson said. “They get tired (of part-time status), they quit and they go on down the road.”

Since the majority of department calls are medic runs, Green has proposed that Columbus Regional Hospital maintain a two-paramedic emergency medical chase vehicle to first respond to medical problems, rather than fire department medics.

“When you have a 275-pound guy that had a heart attack in his upstairs or basement, it takes more than a few people to handle it,” Columbus Township Fire Chief Dave Thompson said.

After Green questioned Thompson about agility test requirements for firefighters, several audience members asked how that subject was relative to the budget.

Following Green’s questions about an irreparably damaged fire truck sold for scrap metal, East Columbus Independent Fire board president Dan Merz said he welcomes efforts by the advisory board to push the department for better financial efficiency.

“But allow us to manage it, instead of telling us how it’s going to be and drastically changing the direction the department is headed – without either of you being a part of it,” Merz said.

The third and newest township advisory board member did not voice his opinion during the meeting, but Dustin Renner later stated he is prepared to support Jackson’s proposed budget as it stands now, which would keep the full-time staff.

“But (I) would like to see city and township officials discuss a potential consolidation deal for the future,” Renner said in a written statement Wednesday. “The current township fire budget sits at about $650,000. I believe that the city (of Columbus) could provide the township with the same level of fire protection for less than that.”

After the meeting, Green said those in attendance only represent a small portion of the township’s population, a remark that elicited a negative response from many who were still in the room.

When trustees take a final vote on the budget Sept. 20, Jackson said he believes Shireman could still be persuaded to change his vote.

The former township police chief, who resigned in February, wasn’t so sure, however.

“I think they’ve already made up their minds,” Rodney Ferrenburg said.

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The final vote on a proposal that Columbus Township Fire & Rescue transition to a part-time staff and eliminate benefits for six full-time firefighters will be taken in about two weeks.

The three-member Columbus Township Advisory Board will vote at 6 p.m. Sept. 20. The meeting, to be held in the Family Arts Building at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds, off State Road 11 south of Garden City, will be open to the public.