Fire Depts. asked to take cut

MINERVA – The three Columbiana County fire departments that cover a portion of West Township are being asked to take a pay cut under a new arrangement with the Sandy Valley Joint Fire District.

Dennis Smith, president of the Hanover Township Fire Department Association, confirmed that they, along with the North Georgetown and Homeworth fire departments, are being asked to take a “significant” cut if they want to continue providing fire coverage to West Township.

“They want us to do the same job we’ve being doing for years but get paid less for doing it,” he said.

The fire district is the result of a 2011 merger between the Minerva and Roberstville fire departments, and it also serves Paris and West townships. West Township is the only area of the four that is in Columbiana County.

Prior to creation of the fire district, the Hanover, Homeworth and North Georgetown fire departments contracted with West Township trustees to provide fire service to about 30 percent of the township. The trustees paid the fire departments $12,000 each from the proceeds of two 1-mill township fire levies.

Last year, the three fire departments began contracting directly with the new fire district to provide coverage for the same areas for the same amount of money- $12,000 per year – but a new contract has yet to be reached for 2013 as the parties continue to negotiate on a new deal.

While Smith declined to get into specifics, he said the fire district board has proposed paying the three department less due to what they believe are the small number of actual fire calls coming from West Township.

North Georgetown Fire Chief Doug Jarvis said the fire district, as one of its proposals, has suggested paying the fire departments on a per-call basis instead of a flat fee. He said this is unacceptable because the volunteer fire departments have the same operating costs, regardless of how many calls they receive.

“It’s like the insurance you pay,” he said of the fire contract. “You don’t pay for home and car insurance after something happens. You pay for it ahead of time in case you need it.”

Meanwhile, fire district voters in Minerva and Paris and West townships approved a new 4-mill operating levy last November, although the measure was rejected in West Township. West Township land owners only experienced a 2-mill increase in property taxes since they were already paying 2 mills for fire protection.

“That’s one of the things we don’t understand,” Smith said. “They’re getting double the money they have before but they’re offering us less, and our expenses haven’t gone down.”

West Township Trustee Dale Lowmiller said the trustees agreed to join the fire district because they believed it would result in lower insurance rates for residents, improved services and help the fire departments with the cost of maintaining and replacing equipment.

Lowmiller believes the fire district should stick with the old contract. “I told them they should keep it the same, but we’re out of it now. The fire district board’s in charge,” he said.

Meanwhile, the three Columbiana County fire departments have issued what they say is their final offer: Pay the three a combined $62,457 per year, which represents 30 percent of the $208,193 in property taxes being paid by West Township residents on the 4-mill levy. The departments were responsible for covering 30 percent of the township under the old contract.

The other option is a a three-year contract under which the fire district would pay the departments $12,000 each in 2013, followed by 5 percent increases in 2014 and 2015.

“We want to work with them like we have in the past, but we just can’t do it based on their last proposal,” Smith said.

Speaking for North Georgetown, Jarvis said they simply cannot continue to provide the coverage without being paid at least $12,000 a year, and he believes Hanover and Homeworth are in the same financial position.

“I don’t think we’re being unreasonable. In fact, I know we’re not being unreasonable,” he said.

Sandy Creek Fire Chief Aaron Stoller declined to be interviewed for the story but sent an e-mail saying Hanover, North Georgetown and Homeworth have agreed to extend the contract until June 29.

“The fire district board is negotiating in the best interest of West Township residents and it is the practice of the board not to comment during active negotiations,” Stoller wrote.