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Oxford FD to seek tax renewal, plus 1.4-mill hike

March 19, 2014 - Additional manpower, additional station space and a couple of refurbished trucks.

That's what the Oxford Fire Department says it needs to continue effectively serving residents.

To make it all happen, township officials last week voted 5-2 to authorize Fire Chief Pete Scholz to work with the township attorney to compose ballot language for the November general election requesting a six-year, 3.9-mill property tax.

One mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of a property's taxable value.

If approved, the levy would begin with the December 2015 township tax collection and end with the December 2020 bill.

This request represents both a renewal and an increase rolled into one tax.

Currently, township and village residents pay 1.5 mills for fire and emergency medical services (EMS) and 1 mill for Advanced Life Support (ALS) services.

Those millages expire with the December 2014 tax collection.

Scholz requested these two millages be combined for accounting purposes.

"(It) makes it easier as far as trying to process the money," he said. "Right now, we can't intermix the funds, so it's a constant battle with bookkeeping trying to keep the two separate."

"Every single expense" the fire department incurs must be "broken down" to determine what portion comes from the ALS budget and what portion comes from the fire/EMS budget, according to Scholz.

In addition to renewing the 2.5 mills, Scholz is looking for an additional 1 mill so he can hire two more full-time firefighters/paramedics and create one 12-hour part-time position.

"We're having a problem with manpower," the chief said.

The problem is the number of calls to which no paid-on-call fire personnel respond is increasing.

According to data supplied by the fire department, there were 114 incidents in 2012 to which no paid-on-call personnel responded. In 2013, that number grew to 149. Most of these calls were medical-related.

Even though the fire department has 13 full-time firefighters, including the chief, it still relies heavily on its paid-on-call personnel.

Right now, the department has 22 paid-on-call firefighters.

That number fluctuates. In 2006, the department had 20. It went up to 32 in 2008 and has pretty much declined ever since.

"We've been trying to hire more paid-on-call (personnel)," Scholz said. "We've advertised for them. We've gotten nobody. During our open houses, we've put (out) information (stating) we're trying to hire more paid-on-call (staff) with no real response to it at all."

"This is a nationwide thing. It's not just here in Oxford. It's happening all across the state, all across the nation," the chief added. "Everybody's having the same issues as far as trying to get paid-on-call (staff) and it's getting more difficult."

Paid-on-call personnel are especially important in medical incidents because they're the ones who drive the ambulance to the hospital, Scholz explained.

If no paid-on-call personnel respond to the scene, then a full-time firefighter/paramedic must drive the ambulance, while another full-timer rides in the back with the patient. "If we're on no other calls, that only leaves one full-time paramedic back in the township for the next call," Scholz told this reporter.

Fire personnel from neighboring Addison and Brandon townships often come to Oxford to cover calls, while Oxford personnel are gone. They do this because of mutual aid agreements.

Scholz noted "it's happening more every single day" that when one call comes in, within 15 to 20 minutes, another one or two calls follow.

"So, we've got about three ambulances on the road at the same time, either down at the hospital or (going) back and forth," he said. "It's taxing the manpower quite a bit."

According to data supplied by the fire department, the number of fire/medical calls has increased by 79.85 percent since 2006.

In 2006, there were 877 medical calls and 210 fire calls, for a total of 1,087. In 2013, there were 1,628 medical calls and 327 fire calls, for a total of 1,955.

Despite this increase, the fire department has maintained a full-time staff of 13 since 2007.

Not only does the fire department's current 2.5-mill tax not generate enough revenue to hire more personnel, it doesn't bring in enough money to cover existing expenses without dipping into the fund balance (i.e. cash reserves).

In 2013, the department took in $2.19 million, but spent $2.35 million, requiring it to use $160,220 from its reserves to balance the budget.

This year, the department projects using $99,079 from its fund balance to close the gap between revenues and expenditures. Between 2015 and 2017, the department projects using a total of $93,233 from its reserves to balance the books.

A 1-mill increase would help stop the department from operating in a deficit budget, according to Scholz.

In addition to the 1-mill increase for manpower, the fire department is seeking another 0.4 mill to add approximately 4,400 square feet to Station #1, located at the corner of Washington and Church streets, and refurbish two 18-year-old fire trucks.

This addition would include sleeping quarters, locker rooms, a kitchen area, a captain's office and a workout room, according to Scholz.

In the original design for Station #1, it was going to have separate sleeping and eating quarters for fire personnel. Those plans were scrapped due to budgetary issues during construction.

As a result, full-time firefighters/paramedics sleep in converted office space.

"We now have men and women sharing 10-foot-by-10-foot sleeping quarters," Scholz wrote in a March 6 memo to the township board. "The paid-on-call members that are fulfilling their ride-along requirements sleep in a recliner."

Two storage closets were converted into a kitchen/day room with a stove and a couple chairs. "The space is extremely cramped," Scholz said.

As far as the trucks are concerned, the department has an engine and a tanker, both purchased in 1996, that are approaching the 20-year industry standard that says they need to be either replaced or refurbished.

Scholz has elected to do the latter due to cost. "The replacement of those two trucks combined is roughly $900,000," the chief said.

Refurbishing them will cost about $110,000 each. "That will give us another 10 years out of those trucks," Scholz said.

Trustee Jack Curtis suggested the township use monies from its general fund's $2.4 million fund balance to pay for the fire station addition rather than asking the voters to increase their tax burden.

"Let's pay for that building with that, instead of re-taxing the people," he said. "We can use our surplus . . . We already got the money . . . I don't want to have to pay again."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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