By MARY ANN GREIER
Salem Fire Chief Jeff Hughes said Thursday the city's offer to provide fire service to Perry Township was "not the same as a fire district - not even close to it."
Hughes was responding to questions about a letter sent to township trustees by Salem Mayor John Berlin asking if there was any interest in having the city of Salem provide Perry Township with fire and first responder services.
The letter was acknowledged by Perry Township Trustees during their meeting Monday, but no action was taken. The township has its own volunteer fire department.
According to Hughes, he and the mayor had a conversation and the topic came up. Hughes said he saw where they were having some problems regarding trying to start up a first responder service and noted the city already has that service with a full-time staff.
"I think both departments combining, everybody wins - and I'm not talking about a fire district," he said.
No details have been considered on how it would work if there was any interest shown. Hughes said the city can't afford to hire more full-time firefighters, but there was talk previously about part-timers. He also said maybe the township volunteers could be folded into the city as an auxiliary force.
"If there's no interest, no harm, no foul. There would have to be a lot of details worked out," he said, adding that would be up to the government officials. "I don't have anything against the Perry Township Fire Department. They've got some good quality people."
Several years ago, the idea of a fire district was raised by some now past city council members to eliminate the city's full-time career department and form a fire district between the city and township as a way to reduce costs. Council's actions sparked a firestorm of opposition and the plan eventually failed.
When asked about the letter and whether it was related to a fire district idea, Berlin said all he did was offer the services of the city. Some townships contract with neighboring cities or villages for fire services and that's what this was an offer to do.
He said he didn't have a cost figured out for a proposed contract, but estimated the cost of fire protection for the city's residents comes out to about $8 per month per resident. He based his figures on a $1.2 million annual budget by the fire department and divided it by 12,303, the number of residents. If there was a bigger number of people, such as the township residents, the cost could be spread out more.
During his mayoral campaign last year, Berlin said he felt the city fire department was an under-utilized powerhouse and the idea to contract services to the township was something he wanted to explore.
Berlin said Perry Township has a very good and qualified fire department and he's not saying they're not doing a good job. He said the city stands ready to assist the township, if the township is interested.
In his letter, Berlin said "I do believe cost sharing on a per capita basis is the way to approach this prospect with the ultimate goal of improving services and increasing efficiencies. Should there be an opportunity for our respective local governments to create ways to spend taxpayers' dollars more wisely with a definable goal of improving services, I am more than willing to discuss options with you."
He also made note of the city fire department's response time of just over 3 1/2 minutes, with more than 1400 calls responded to last year. According to records provided to the Salem News earlier this year, Perry Township responded to about 130 calls last year with it's all volunteer department. Both departments provide mutual aid to each other.
The city is located within Perry Township, with the township's jurisdiction outside of the city limits and the city controlling everything within the city limits.