Likely Hgtn. Twp. to be served by VFDs

By the end of 2014, it's likely that properties in rural Huntington Township will be served by volunteer fire departments.

That would be a change from the current arrangement, in which Huntington Township contracts with the city of Huntington for fire protection.

But with city officials proposing new - and, for the township, vastly more expensive - terms for that contract, township officials have decided to turn to other options.

"We're not going to agree to a fire territory," says Huntington Township Trustee Tim Guy. "Nor can we come up with $540,000. They have offered no other options."

If another option is offered by the city, he says, the township advisory board would consider that option.

The township's current contract with the city, which will remain in effect until the end of 2014, calls for the township to pay the city $75,000 a year to provide fire protection in the rural areas of Huntington Township. A long-standing "unwritten agreement," Guy says, has the township purchasing a new truck for the Huntington Fire Department approximately every 15 years.

Changing that arrangement was one recommendation contained in a study the Huntington Common Council commissioned in early 2010 to find ways the city could cut expenses and increase revenue. The recommendations made following that study,conducted by the financial services firm Umbaugh, included the creation of a fire territory "to more equitably distribute the costs."

A fire territory, Huntington Fire Chief Tim Albertson says, would separate the Huntington Fire Department from exclusive control of the city and place it under the control of a board consisting of the mayor, township trustee, city council member, township advisory board member and a resident of the territory.

A fire territory would be funded by a new tax levy that would be paid, at the same rate, by property owners both in the city and in the rural areas of Huntington Township. The department would then serve all residents of Huntington Township, both rural and city residents.
The $2.7 million annual fire department budget would no longer have to be raised as part of the overall city budget.

The alternate proposal offered by city officials, Guy says, is to increase the township's annual payment from $75,000 to $540,000 - a figure city officials say is closer to the true cost of providing fire protection services to rural areas of Huntington Township.
The township advisory board rejected both proposals, opting to seek out service from volunteer fire departments.

"We're opposed to raising taxes," Guy says. "Both options would require raising taxes."

Although an exact tax rate for a fire territory has not been determined, Albertson believes it would amount to "a couple hundred dollars" annually for a residential property.

Albertson points out that the township's annual payment currently represents only 2.7 percent of the Huntington Fire Department's total $2.7 million budget, while 16 percent of the total township population and 75 percent of the total township land mass is outside the city limits. Fifteen percent of the city's runs, he adds, are outside the city limits.

"There's a pretty serious disparity there," Albertson says.

Guy, however, believes he can use the annual $75,000 payment to the city to instead contract with four volunteer fire department for fire protection.

"It's looking like we can get by on what we pay the city now," Guy says.

He says he's received informal commitments from the volunteer departments to begin providing services to rural areas of Huntington Township once the contract with the city runs out at the end of 2014. A discussion of contract terms will be held on Oct. 9 at 9 a.m. at the Huntington Township trustee's office.

Four volunteer fire departments would be involved in protecting rural Huntington Township, Guy says, with a fifth ready to help if needed. Bippus/Clear Creek would cover the north side of the township, Andrews the west side, Mt. Etna the south and Markle the east, he says.

"They're all within that five-mile gold standard, except to the east with Markle," Guy says. He says the five-mile distance from property to fire station is considered acceptable by insurance companies.

Guy is considering building a garage in Huntington Township, possibly at Lake Clare, to house a truck from Markle, to bring that department within the five-mile distance.

The volunteer fire departments use a "dual dispatch" response, he says, meaning that two departments are sent to a call.

The Roanoke Volunteer Fire Department is outside the five-mile distance, Guy says, but is willing to provide mutual aid to any of the other departments fighting a fire in rural Huntington Township. The Huntington Fire Department would also provide mutual aid if needed, but would not be the primary responder, both Guy and Albertson say.

"The volunteers do a great job; they're just farther away," Albertson says. "We're out the door in a minute."

Guy admits that response time might increase with the volunteer departments.

"We lose a little bit there, but some homes might be closer to a volunteer fire department than to the city," he says. "I don't think we lose a whole lot in response time."

Guy says rural Huntington Township property owners shouldn't be concerned about the possible change.

"I want people to understand that there's no crisis," Guy says. "They will have fire protection. There won't be a lapse.

"If we do go with volunteers, that is good fire protection. It's acceptable. It's adequate."

Albertson says the Huntington Fire Department would not suffer any harm if Huntington Township follows through with its plans to contract with volunteer departments.

The loss of the annual payment from the township would be offset by the loss of 15 percent of his department's runs, he says, bringing with it a savings on fuel and equipment maintenance. Plus, with fewer runs, there's fewer opportunities for a firefighter to be injured on the job, he adds.

But, Albertson says, he still thinks implementation of a fire protection territory would be the best way to go.
"The entire township includes the city," Albertson says.
"We need to look at what's best for all constituents."