REENFIELD — A $500,000 budget shortfall has left the Greenfield Fire Territory understaffed, forcing the department to call on neighboring fire departments to help respond to emergencies, department officials said.
Scaling back its spending means the fire department will have to hold off on hiring three new paramedics, which are personnel Fire Chief James Roberts said the department needs now. Meanwhile, the department must depend on neighboring agencies to fill the gaps in coverage when an emergency call comes in.
The city will have to dip into its local option income tax fund to cover the remaining shortfall.
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The city of Greenfield submitted a budget to the Department of Local Government Finance that was larger than what anticipated taxes and revenue would cover, but the shortfall isn’t nearly as large as it could have been, Clerk-Treasurer Larry Breese said.
That’s because the city and the Department of Local Government Finance recently settled a three-year disagreement about how much the territory can collect in taxes.
The city’s submitted budget for the fire territory this year was $4.9 million, and the DLGF approved $4.4 million. That difference leaves the budget underfunded by $502,000.
By waiting until the end of September to hire the new employees, the territory will save $253,500 in salaries and benefits. It will cover the remaining shortfall with about $250,000 of LOIT money, which is reserved for public safety departments.
When submitting his department’s 2015 budget, he asked the Greenfield City Council to include funds to hire three new paramedics who will also serve as firefighters because those personnel are needed to adequately protect citizens, Roberts said.
While he said he is grateful the positions have not been cut completely, Roberts added he worries about the department’s ability to quickly respond to calls for help in the meantime.
“At least we know, after this, that we’ve got those three people in place,” he said. “But it worries me every day.”
In recent weeks, the fire department has had to call Sugar Creek and Buck Creek township medics multiple times to assist with emergency calls in the fire territory because Greenfield didn’t have the staff to respond. Calling on outside agencies for help can stress their resources, as well as lead to longer response times for patients.
“That’s frustrating to me,” Roberts said.
And it’s taxing on other fire departments, Buck Creek Township Fire Chief Dave Sutherlin said.
“Everybody gets stressed out,” Sutherlin said.
It takes Buck Creek Township ambulances at least 10 minutes to get to Greenfield, he said, meaning patients might be waiting longer for help.
“It puts stress and strain on the whole system,” Sutherlin said.
The staffing issue also worries Greenfield Mayor Chuck Fewell. But he said the city can’t create funding that doesn’t exist.
“I always have concerns about safety and safety issues for the citizens,” Fewell said. “I cannot generate the revenue to have it go into immediate action.”
This isn’t the first year the city has had to consider cuts or tap into LOIT money to patch funding gaps. During the past three budget years, it’s had to spend more than $1.3 million of income tax funds to plug funding holes, caused in part by lost tax revenue.
The department’s financial woes started in 2011 when the DLGF ruled the fire department should not be allowed to collect so much in taxes from local residents.
The fire territory was formed in 2008 as a way to provide coverage to both Greenfield and Center Township residents at the same tax rate. When that happened, tax rates for both increased, and rural residents expressed concerns about the spike.
Since that time, the DLGF and the city have disagreed on what the territory’s maximum levy — the amount that can be collected in taxes — should be.
That disagreement kept the tax levy stagnant, Fewell said, while need and inflation rose.
The city appealed the DLGF’s 2011 decision in Indiana Tax Court, and the court ruled in the city’s favor regarding the tax levy.
And recently, the DLGF and the city settled on what the tax levy for the territory should be. That was good news for the city, Breese said. It means the city can increase its revenue, but it will take a few years before that revenue matches the budget.
There’s a strong possibility the territory’s budget will be underfunded next year, too, he said.
“Somewhere between 2.5 and 3 percent is what the levy can grow in a typical year,” Breese said.
For the fire territory, that’s about $75,000 to $80,000 of additional revenue, he added, “which helps, but it’s not going to cover the shortfall.”
Fewell said he doesn’t want residents to worry, stressing that the territory’s revenue will increase over time.
“We just can’t catch up yet,” Fewell said. “I never want citizens to be in fear of having to live someplace where we can’t take care of them. We can, and we will.”
Roberts said he’s looking at ways to cut the territory’s expenditures or increase its revenue in the future. The light at the end of the tunnel, he said, is the lawsuit and issues revolving the tax levy are over.
“I’m just glad it’s behind us, and now we can move on,” Roberts said.
The Department of Local Government Finance is a state agency responsible for ensuring property tax assessment and local government budgeting meets state requirements.
Each year it approves the tax rates and levies (and subsequent budgets) of all counties, towns, cities, school corporations, townships and libraries in the state.