It was a full house at Versailles mtg. to discuss new fire territory
WANDA ENGLISH BURNETT PHOTO
There were over 100 people who attended a public hearing at the Versailles Town Hall on Wednesday, February 20 to learn more about a proposed Versailles-Johnson Township Fire Protection Territory that would impact the town of Versailles and Johnson Township taxpayers.
After a notice was placed in the local newspaper, many attended to find out more and why their property taxes could possibly raise substantially.
The town and township together supported the cost for H.J. Umbaugh and Associates, Certified Public Accountants, to prepare the Summary of Financial Impact Analysis.
The meeting was hosted by the Versailles Town Board and Johnson Township with Steve Mathes, president of the town board, presiding. Toni Halcomb, Johnson Township Trustee was also in attendance with members of her advisory board. Versailles Fire Chief Ben Sieverding gave an overview of the fire department, its needs, and what the future could look like. He noted that Versailles firefighters and first responders have more calls per year than the combination of Milan, Holton, New Marion, Friendship and Delaware. There were more than 500 calls last year with Sieverding saying they are well on their way to having another busy year. That day alone, they had responded to six calls. When asked if they were all structure fires, he said many of them were not, but rather first response calls.
Chief Sieverding presented the facts concerning the equipment they have. “It’s an aging fleet,” he told the crowd. “We make it work for now,” he continued noting that they have two fire engines, one is a 1997, the other 1996. They have a 2005 tanker and a 1999 brush truck. A 2006 EMS response vehicle and a 1993 rescue truck that carries equipment for accidents, etc. round out the fleet.
With those statistics in mind, Sieverding noted, “We have to be forward thinking.”
He quickly put to rest the rumors that they are trying to be a paid fire department. “That is not happening,” he assured those who thought they were trying to gain funds to pay firefighters. In a report that residents would later see in the evening, some wording under duties of a Fire Territory Executive Board (which is optional and not required by Indiana law) was that they could use the funding to include “staffing and equipment”. Also in the report under services were these words “no immediate plans to hire full-time staff”. That wording concerned some that attended the meeting.
Sieverding showed the costs of everything to outfit each firefighter with the total cost being $3900. He said they have 29 firefighters on their roster. Their self-contained breathing apparatus gear and radios are older, some needing to be replaced. He explained that just as everyone’s everyday costs have risen, so have items for the fire department.
Chief Sieverding said he hoped no one in the room needed their help, because he knows they are only called for a time of crisis. “God forbid you need us,” he said more than once throughout the meeting. He noted he had been with the fire department for 38 years and would be retiring, but wanted to leave the department in good shape for those coming behind him. He asked for the support of those in the room and their prayers as they try to do what is often a thankless job to help others. “We’re just helping our community,” he said, noting that they have dedicated volunteers, as do other departments. He said they have an ISO rating of 5. Mike Meisberger of Hummel-Meisberger Insurance, was on hand to explain about the ISO rating. “The importance of the ISO rating from your fire department makes a big difference in how much your homeowner’s insurance premium is,” he said. He gave examples and said the people of Versailles and Johnson Township were fortunate to have a fire department like Versailles who is always striving to improve that rating for the good of the homeowner. ISO rating is based on a variety of things including equipment, manpower, fire hydrants and more.
Paige Sansone, CPA partner with Umbaugh gave a presentation about what a fire protection territory entails. Forming a fire territory is a way some fire departments can get additional funds to fill the deficit. Unfortunately, someone has to pay for it and it falls in the laps of the homeowners – in this case those in Versailles and Johnson Township.
A Fire Protection Territory is a type of fire service consolidation provided by Indiana Law (IC 36-8-19). It takes two political subdivisions that touch boundaries to establish, for example in this instance the town of Versailles and Johnson Township. This will provide additional funding for operating the fire department and was explained as the only option for the fire department to get steady funding. In this case, Versailles gets around $57,000 a year from the county, town, township, and grants. Their budget far exceeds that amount.
“This process is to establish a property tax levy that can be used over the next several years,” Sansone told the crowd. The Fire Protection Territory would spread the cost of fire services over a larger tax base. The proposed fire territory would see volunteers continue to serve the same territory they do now.
The bottom line of “how much?” wasn’t exactly answered at the meeting. A five-year Capital Plan was shown that money wasneeded for the fire department, which amounted to $896,100.
Sansone showed a chart “Estimated Taxing District Rate Impact”. The tax impact for 2020 for the Town of Versailles was 7.5%; Johnson Township rate was 11.2%. However, for 2021, the town residents percentage was shown as -0.3% with Johnson Township’s rate at -0.4%; for 2022 the town was 0.2% with Johnson Township at 0.3%. It was noted the levy to fund 10% cash reserves is allowed in the first year 2020 only.
There is no doubt the taxes will be raised, but Sansone assured those in the room it wasn’t a high amount every year and it would even out. Some residents who own property in both Versailles and Johnson Township have worries that the rate won’t go down and they will be stuck with extremely high property taxes.
The next phase of the proposed fire territory will be another public hearing March 13 with the third and final hearing set for March 26 at the town hall in Versailles. The Town Board of Versailles along with the Johnson Township Advisory Board will vote in the end. If the proposal is passed through these boards, it will then be sent to the Department of Local Government Fund for review and final determination.
Sieverding noted he would bring a detailed budget to the next hearing and Roxanne Meyer noted she hoped Sansone would make the amount that would be levied more clear.
At this phase, it’s just a proposal with the Versailles Fire Department looking to the future and wanting to provide the best service they can for their territory and sometimes beyond. To make it a reality, the township board and Versailles town board have to put it to a vote.
Jim Busteed, Versailles resident and business owner, noted that he is going door-to-door asking people to come to the next meeting, which is March 13. “I want to make -sure everyone who is affected by this knows what is going on,” he told The Versailles Republican. He said he still doesn’t know the exact percentage his taxes would raise if this is implemented even after listening to the entire first meeting.