Liberty Twp. may ask a staffing firm to help expedite its search for a new fire chief in hopes the new leader will be able to weigh in on a possible fire levy.
If the growing Butler County township remains status quo, the fire and EMS fund balance, estimated to be $1.1 million to start next year, will evaporate and put the fund into the negative to the tune of $233,439 by the start of 2018. The township will have a $750,000 deficit in the fire and EMS budget for next year.
Trustee board President Tom Farrell acknowledged the levy is critical, but said he remains resolute that the new fire chief be at the levy decision-making table.
“Depending on how long it takes to get the new chief then a decision will be made, whether it be May or November or 2018 …” Farrell said. “I would like to make sure that the new management of the fire department has input on it, and if that means waiting then my recommendation would be to wait.”
The deadline to get a levy question on the May ballot is Feb. 1 and Aug. 9 for the November ballot.
But Trustee Steve Schramm said the board can’t wait on a levy decision.
“I don’t know that we can afford to wait that long,” he said. “To my knowledge our chief isn’t planned to be in place until June or July, to give them a little bit of overlap (with the current fire chief) … I don’t know that we can wait that long to pull the trigger on the levy to get it on the November ballot.”
With continued residential development in the township, trustee Christine Matacis said a levy decision need to be made “sooner than later.”
The township has quadrupled in two decades, now standing at about 40,000 residents and is home to Liberty Center, a $350 million mixed-use development.
“I think if they (the new chief) are online in that time frame they will have some input into the levy issue,” Matacic said. “But I also know that we cannot put our residents in harm’s way by ignoring the fact we know. If things keep going the way they are, we will have a deficit down the road.”
“We are definitely heading into the negative if we don’t do something soon,” Township Administrator Kristen Bitonte told trustees last summer. “Red is not good.”
The trustees started talking levy in June and did get information from the county auditor’s office on how much a 3, 3.5 and 4 mill levy would collect and cost the owner of a $100,000 home.
Numbers from the auditor’s office revealed a 3-mill levy would garner $1.7 million in additional funds and cost $105; 3.5 mills would pull in $2.9 million and cost $122; and a 4-mill levy would result in $3.4 million in new money and cost $140.
The township pulled back from putting a levy request on the Nov. 8 ballot because they said they needed to do their due diligence with numbers from the auditor.
Township Administrator Kristen Bitonte said she is still exploring using a search firm and the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association is one of the contenders. She said she hopes they will have a decision on the search process by the end of the year.
Matacic said they are culling numbers from the county auditor’s office to get a better handle on what their true tax base looks like with all the new growth.
“We will do this now over the next two to three months so we would have enough time to make an educated decision on whether or not to move forward and if we move forward at what level,” she said. “It could be two-to-six months before we have all the information between the finance committee and the auditor’s office.”
Farrell said setting levies is always a tricky business because you have to set it just right so you’re not constantly going back to taxpayers for more money. While Liberty is one of the fasted growing places in the state they do not benefit from additional taxpayers, all taxpayers get a break as the base gets bigger.
“We could triple our commercial space and our residential space and there still would be no more money for the fire department,” he said. “It’s a fixed amount and because it’s a fixed amount it is very hard to calculate and then you end up going back to residents on a more regular basis and everybody believes there are too many levies. It’s something quite honestly that needs to be changed.”
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