Fairfield Council considers new fire levy, fire department’s future

Fairfield City Council is considering placing a levy on the May 3 primary ballot, but the type, size and length of the ballot have not been decided. The levy is needed because of budget increases due to added overtime costs which were needed as the department is having a difficult time finding and retaining part-time firefighters. Pictured is the Fairfield Fire Department responding to a medical call at The Waterford at Fairfield senior living community Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 in Fairfield. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

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Fairfield City Council is considering placing a levy on the May 3 primary ballot, but the type, size and length of the ballot have not been decided. The levy is needed because of budget increases due to added overtime costs which were needed as the department is having a difficult time finding and retaining part-time firefighters. Pictured is the Fairfield Fire Department responding to a medical call at The Waterford at Fairfield senior living community Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 in Fairfield. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Fairfield is considering a new fire levy on the May primary ballot, which, if approved, would start a five-year transition into becoming a career department, the city’s fire chief.

The need for the levy and change into a department with just full-time personnel is due to a lack of available part-time staff ― a problem that’s not exclusive to the city. Fairfield has seven open part-time positions and no applications on file. And fire Chief Don Bennett said when they are able to hire a part-time firefighter, they don’t stick around long.

“The foundation for our service is part-time, it’s crumbling,” the chief said.

The part-time vacancies have forced the city to increase its availability of overtime to maintain minimum staffing levels. But Bennett said that added pressure on the firefighters.

ExploreFire Chief: ‘We simply tried to operate the fire department within the funds provided'

“Following our presentation (to City Council) in May (2021), we were allocated the overtime to maintain 17 personnel,” the chief said. “Because of the strain on our personnel for overtime, I had to drop that back down to 15 because physically there were not enough numbers to meet that demand. We were mandating people two or three times a pay period, a week to come in.”

What a potential levy would look like is uncertain at this point, but the council debated on Monday putting either an additional levy ― the city already has two fire levies on the books ― or replacing their existing levies with a new one.

The levy would be needed even if the city doesn’t convert to a career department, but the proposal to transition from a combination to a career department would add nine full-time firefighters which would eliminate 18 part-time positions, “so the dependency on that questionable resource diminishes greatly,” Bennett said. Nearly half of the on-duty staff are part-time personnel.

Bennett would like to add six firefighters either near the end of this year or the start of 2023, and three more firefighters over the course of the ensuing four years.

Recruitment will be competitive as nine area departments are looking to increase their full-time staffing, and that doesn’t include departments in Cincinnati, Dayton, and Columbus, which are going to be hiring collectively hundreds of full-time people, Bennett said.

The staff is recommending a replacement levy, which would replace the exiting two levies that total 7.15 mills with a single levy. The amount of the levy, as well as its length, hasn’t been decided, but discussions among City Council members Monday were around a replacement levy of either 9 or 10.25 mils.

A 9-mil levy could cost the owner of a $150,000 home around $472 a year, and about $65 more on a 10.25-mill levy. Owners of a $150,000 home pay around $300 a year.

This past Monday’s discussion was continued and will resume at a special Saturday morning meeting, and the board could decide on the levy amount and length. Time is short as they have to request the county auditor to certify an amount, and then come back several days later and pass legislation indicating a need to place it on the May ballot.

All this has to be done and sent to the county board of elections by 4 p.m. Feb. 2.

“This is a serious discussion in a very short period of time,” said Councilmember Tim Meyers. “This is a lot of information to take in that I got to go back and tell my neighbors, who are all retired.”

Council seems to be interested in a seven- or eight-year levy, but details on those levy lengths have not yet been calculated.

“Ten years seems like a long time to have to predict the future,” said Councilmember Leslie Besl. “And five years seems kinda short; it’ll be here before you know it.”


CONTINUING COVERAGE

The Journal-News has reported on the possibility of a new fire levy for the Fairfield Fire Department since 2019, when it was first discussed as it related to the federal SAFER grant City Council ultimately declined.

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