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As runs grow, fire department doesn't

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GREENFIELD — The Greenfield Fire Territory needs more staff, Chief James Roberts says, but as funding remains in limbo for the third year in a row, it’s practically impossible for the department to grow.

Runs were up by 13 percent in 2013 compared to the previous year, Roberts told the Greenfield City Council at a recent workshop, and the department has had to rely on nearby volunteer stations for assistance.

City officials need to consider staffing levels for the department that serves both Greenfield and Center Township, he said, but until a state tax court makes a decision on how much residents should pay in property taxes, budgeting remains a challenge.

“At this point, I don’t have a good answer,” Roberts said. “We can ask for (more staff), but … we don’t know what can happen with the case.”

At issue is a funding dilemma city officials have faced since 2011. The fire territory formed in 2008 as a way to get both township and city residents paying an equal amount on taxes for services. Problem was, the change came at the same time as property tax reform, and city officials said confusion over rates led to all property owners paying more for fire protection than ever before.

The state Legislature passed a bill in 2011 for Greenfield to have a special review of its tax rates, and the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance ruled late that year that township residents were paying too much and the rate should be cut. The city of Greenfield immediately appealed the decision to the Indiana Tax Court, and officials are still awaiting an answer.

Roberts said until an answer arrives, it’s hard to know how to budget every year. City officials have had to dip into local-option income tax funds to plug funding holes, but Roberts says as the city population continues to grow and age, emergency runs rise.

“They’ve cut us so short, it’s hard to ask for anything,” Roberts said.

The department has a staff of 46; 15 are paramedics. The last time staffing levels rose for the department was six years ago, in 2008.

Roberts says as the city grows, so does the demand in emergency services. In 2013, the department responded to 3,362 runs, which is up from 2,995 in 2012. Compared to 10 years ago, there’s been a 32 percent increase in runs, Roberts added.

If he could, he would hire a mixture of both paramedics and emergency medical technicians/firefighters. He said because of the escalating number of runs, the city has had to rely on ambulances from New Palestine or Mt. Comfort to assist. In 2013 alone, that happened 147 times – that’s 147 times local residents had to wait longer to get medical help, Roberts said.

The council, which heard from two other department heads last Saturday in a special workshop about long-term needs, simply took the statistics in.

“It’s clear if we had unlimited funds, we’d probably hire more people,” said Councilman John Patton. “But we’re doing as well as could be expected.”

Gary McDaniel said it’s frustrating the city was put into a financial tight spot in the first place. Until a ruling is made, the council will probably have to continue using LOIT funds to plug the funding gap.

Council President Kerry Grass agreed.

“If we could add more people to every department, it would be great. But we don’t have the funding,” Grass said. “We can’t twist their arm (the Indiana Tax Court). Whenever they bring a ruling back is when they bring a ruling back.”

But city officials are hoping to nudge the judge a little. Clerk-Treasurer Larry Breese said they’ve contacted their attorney to send a letter to the Indiana Tax Court.

“That’s a fine line you’re walking with that, but for the fire territory to move forward and have planning, they need a decision one way or another,” Breese said. “If they decide not in favor of the city and find in favor of the state, at least you know and you can move forward and plan accordingly.”

Breese said it would be nice to have an answer by this summer before planning for the 2015 budget. The fire territory’s budget for 2014 was not approved: the city had planned for nearly $4.8 million in expenses, but only $3.7 million was approved. LOIT funds were tapped to make up the $753,000 difference, but Breese said the council shouldn’t depend on the income tax for a cushion.

The LOIT fund must be used for public safety, and it currently has a cash balance of about $327,000. With a monthly income of nearly $89,000, Breese said the fund will continue to grow, but so do the requests from city departments. The Greenfield Police Department, for example, recently tapped the LOIT fund for new vehicles.

“LOIT is controlled by the county council. They could take it away,” Breese said. “There’s no guarantees that’s going to be a forever and ever type of revenue, so I wouldn’t recommend the city council to just automatically plug that number in every year. We don’t know, it could go away.”

Roberts said had it not been for LOIT funds plugging the funding gap in January, the department would have had to lay off about 10 staff members. But he agrees the city shouldn’t continue to use that as  a safety net, and the best solution is for some kind of answer to the property tax question from the state tax court.

“We need to get something figured out one way or another,” Roberts said.

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