Tax caps put new south Madison County fire territory at odds with other taxing bodies

·4 min read

Jun. 11—PENDLETON — A new fire protection territory considered for the southern reaches of Madison County is closer to a reality as the four entities that have agreed to the joint venture enter into a memorandum of understanding.

But what appears to be efficient and fiscally prudent for the town of Pendleton, the town of Ingalls, Fall Creek Township and Green Township may be a disaster for other local taxing bodies, including South Madison Community Schools, the Pendleton Public Library and Pendleton Parks Department.

For instance, according to a feasibility study completed by Baker Tilly Municipal Advisors in preparation for the consolidation, South Madison schools would lose $931,686 annually. That's because of the cap set by state law limiting the total that can be collected by all the taxing bodies combined.

"I hate that it's going to take money away from the library. I hate that it will take money away from the school corporation. I don't know how else to do it," said Green Township Trustee Greg Valentine. "It's very important we get a plan together before it's too late. This is the only plan my three-member advisory and I see as a workable plan."

The new fire protection territory would not be operational until 2023 at the earliest.

Finalizing it still requires three public hearings that wouldn't be scheduled until early next year. However, Valentine said even if there is opposition at the hearings, there is no way because of state law for the public to stop the formation of the fire protection territory.

Richland and Union townships toward the north also are developing a fire protection territory.

Green Township spends about $120,000 annually on fire protection, contracting with Lapel-Stony Creek Fire Department, Pendleton Fire Department and Mount Vernon Fire Department in Hancock County, Valentine said. However, Mount Vernon will be dropping Green Township next year because of the increasing number of fire and medical incidents caused by a growing population.

"I'm basically up against a wall. I have no one that will provide fire protection to me in 2022 except for Pendleton," he said. "So it's just as easy for me to join the fire territory. I won't save any money, but I will have better coverage through a new fire protection territory."

Valentine said he often is asked why Green Township doesn't have a volunteer fire department.

"If you check around with your fire chiefs, volunteerism isn't what it used to be," he said.

Many also assume that because the population is growing, there is more money available to be spent on fire protection, but the opposite is true, Valentine said. As the number of residents goes up, their tax liability stays relatively the same but is shared over more households.

Because of the new fire protection territory, Green Township finally will be able to have its own two-bay fire station, Valentine said.

"We will have our own fire department. We've needed one for 15 years," he said.

South Madison Superintendent Mark Hall said the district is not against public safety, but it also must protect the educational interests of the students.

"We understand the need for that," he said. "We just want to figure out how we can all live under the same tax cap."

But Hall, who addressed the Pendleton Town Council formally on the matter in April and May, said he is taking this time to ensure taxpayers understand exactly what they would be getting into and to work with the participating taxing bodies to find an equitable solution.

As things stand, he said, the only options are staff and program reductions or increasing revenue, most likely through an operations referendum.

"All the taxing units are having the same conversation. It's not just us," he said. "(Tax caps) are beneficial to the taxpayers, but the taxing units have to work out of the same pot of money now. When you add another taxing body, it takes away from everyone else because there is not any more that can be generated."

If the annual loss were to be absorbed through the district's budget, it would require moving money from the state-funded Education Fund to the property tax-funded Operations Fund, Hall said. At a cost of about $70,000 per teacher for salaries and benefits, that would lead to a reduction of about 14 first-year teachers from the total district staff of more than 200, he said.

"We already lose roughly $1 million a year because of the caps," he added.

Hall admitted the final figures actually may be higher or lower, depending on a new analysis that will need to be done later this year because of revised assessed property valuations.

Though a resolution has yet to be reached, Hall said the preliminary talks between South Madison schools and the participating fire territories appear to be productive.

"They have been pretty productive to this point. They understand it has an impact on all taxing bodies," he said. "We're certainly optimistic we will be able to come up with a solution."

Follow Rebecca R. Bibbs on Twitter at @RebeccaB_THB, or call 765-640-4883.

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