Consolidation of fire protection now on the horizon for five Monroe County townships, maybe more in future

On Thursday night, Monroe Fire Protection District chief Dustin Dillard addressed a handful of Bloomington Township residents at a meeting held at the fire station on Old State Road 37.

Cropped two fire chiefs 08.09.2019 fire district meeting - 6
Monroe Fire Protection District’s chief Dustin Dillard (left) and Northern Monroe Fire Territory chief Joel Bomgardner at the Aug. 8, 2019 meeting held at the Bloomington Township fire station on Old SR 37. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

Bloomington Township is not yet a part of the the fire district Dillard leads, which is made up of three townships in the southwest part of Monroe County—Perry, Clear Creek and Indian Creek. It was just at the start of this year that Indian Creek was added as a member.

A current proposal is to add two more townships to the mix. One is in the southwest corner of the county—Van Buren Township. The other is the unincorporated part of Bloomington Township, which would make it the first area north of the county’s midline to become a member of the Monroe Fire Protection District.

Among the benefits described at the meeting for adding two townships to the district are: protection of the tax levy from annexations by the City of Bloomington; an initial lowering the tax rate for residents of Bloomington Township (but it would increase in the second and third years); administration of county fire departments under one umbrella; and the distribution of expenses over a larger tax base.

Dillard also expects the expansion of the Monroe Fire Protection District (MFPD) to lead to the re-programming of dispatch software to reflect automatic aid between the City of Bloomington and township areas.

The proposal is not just about preserving the existing tax levies for fire protection outside the Bloomington city limits, if some areas are annexed. The idea is to increase expenditures on fire protection to provide better service. The proposed budget goes from $8.6 million in the first year to $12.5 million by the third year of the district’s operation.

“We play nice with each other already, as it is,” Dillard said, which maximizes available firefighters. The idea is to increase the number of firefighters, Dillard said. Currently, he said, there are five firefighters on a shift, which is not enough to fight a house fire—adhering to the 2-in-2-out rule would require around 15 firefighters to handle a house fire.

Currently, Dillard said, “We have 14 firefighters on the street. On the maximum levy request, it would go to 26,” he said.

When the five-township fire protection district is in place, Dillard told The Beacon, all the member townships will meet the necessary criteria for [software programming of automatic aid] to happen again, and it would be a travesty if we weren’t back talking again.”

Dillard was referring to the kerfuffle between the City of Bloomington and MFPD that unfolded in April this year over the way MFPD wanted to portray its relationship with the City to Insurance Service Office (ISO) representatives. The City said in its formal statement, “… the MFPD planned to present the dispatch system components as proof of automatic aid even though the MFPD was aware there were no signed agreements with [Bloomington Fire Department].” As a result Bloomington Fire Department re-programmed the dispatch system components.

Whatever fences need mending could be helped along by a new (since January) deputy chief with MFPD, George Cornwell, who put in 30 years with the Bloomington Fire Department. At Thursday’s meeting Cornwell told The Beacon, “I can see both sides.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Dillard chalked up the friction in April to the politics involved with some annexations by the City of Bloomington that were proposed in 2017, and subsequently blocked by the state legislature, an issue that’s now in litigation in front of the Indiana Supreme Court.

For Beacon Annotated Large R Map Fire Districts Fire Protection 2019 with proposed 2017 City Annexationxxxx copy The blocking of those 2017 annexations was crucial for the current proposal. To see how, the geography involved in adding the two townships needs a little scrutiny.

The proposal would dismantle the Northern Monroe Fire Territory, which is made up of Bloomington Township and Washington Township. So Washington Township would be left out of the Monroe Fire Protection District (MFPD) for an interim period. During that time, Washington would contract for services with the new, expanded district.

The territory’s fire chief, Joel Bomgardner, said at Thursday’s meeting that if the proposal is adopted: “Through Dec. 31 of 2020, we’ll cover Washington Township. On Jan. 1, 2021, we’d enter into the [Monroe Fire Protection District]. At that time Benton and Washington would enter into contracts with the district.”

Bomgardner said he believed it’s the intent of Washington and Benton townships eventually to join the district. Here’s what the stepwise process might look like. (Images are clickable.)

Washington and Benton townships can’t join MFPD as a part of the current proposal, Bomgardner said, because they are not contiguous with the townships in the existing district. The state statute puts it this way: “… one (1) part of a district may not be completely separate from another part.”

Bloomington Township is currently contiguous with Perry Township, which is a member of the MFPD. If the City’s proposed annexations had been adopted, the area east of SR 446 where Bloomington and Perry townships share a border for around a half mile, would have become a part of the city, sealing off the north-south connection between the two townships. So it’s only because the City of Bloomington’s 2017 annexation was blocked by the state legislature that the current proposal is possible.

The prospect of future annexations into the city of Bloomington is one significant reason why Van Buren and Bloomington townships are interested in making themselves a part of some fire protection district. The motivation stems from a law passed during the 2019 legislative session, Senate Bill 603,  that allows a fire protection district to retain the property tax levy on land in the district, even after that land has been annexed into a city.

Why doesn’t the existing Northern Monroe Fire Territory already qualify for protection under SB 603? Because it’s a fire protection territory, not a district. At the start of the meeting, Bloomington Township trustee Kim Alexander clarified the difference.  “A fire protection territory is not a separate unit of government,” she said. “A fire protection district is a separate unit of government. The taxes it raises are solely for fire emergency protection and is established by the county commissioners after the process of gathering petitions…”

Two of the three county commissioners attended Thursday’s meeting—Julie Thomas and Penny Githens. Thomas told The Beacon that she was attending both as a Bloomington Township resident and a county commissioner. She said she had “no qualms” about expanding the MFPD to make it a five-township fire protection district.

During the meeting, Thomas said from the point petitions were filed, there’d be a 30-remonstration period. If enough people remonstrate, there’ll be a public hearing sometime in September on a Wednesday morning, which is when the board of commissioners holds its regular meetings, Thomas said.

Even if the Northern Monroe Fire Territory were a district, it still wouldn’t qualify for preservation of its tax levy under SB 603. The new law establishes a qualifying threshold for a fire protection district: a total net assessed value of more than $1 billion.

Even if Washington Twp, ($126,760,238), Bloomington Twp ($322,439,449) and Benton Twp ($253,607,951) formed a fire protection district, the total net assessed value would be around $703 million, less than the $1-billion threshold.

The proposed new five-township fire protection district would have a total net assessed value of $2.13 billion.

Based on that assessed value and the planned budget for the MFPD, the tax levy in the first year would be $0.2452 per $100 of assessed value. In the second year, it would increase to $0.288. In the third year the rate would increase to $0.3538.

In Bloomington Township, the current fire levy is $0.3536. In Van Buren Township the current fire levy is $0.2402. In Clear Creek, Perry and Indian Creek townships, the current fire levy is $0.1633.

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