Monroe Fire Protection District presents “massive” budget to county council

On Tuesday night, Monroe Fire Protection District (MFPD) chief Dustin Dillard presented a 2021 budget to the county council that weighed in at just shy of $12 million.

That’s better than three times the 2020 adopted budget, which totals around $3.7 million. But as Dillard put it, “It’s impossible to compare the current district to the 2021 budget without expressing the scale of this operation.”

The budget for 2021 is way bigger for a couple of reasons. First, it reflects a consolation of three departments—MFPD with the fire departments in Van Buren and Bloomington townships. Van Buren and Bloomington townships were approved last year by the board of county commissioners to join MFPD starting in 2021 after following a process that the commissioners had laid out.  It was the same process that Washington and Benton townships are following this year.

Until they join the MFPD in 2022—assuming their membership is approved by county commissioners later this year—the plan is for Washington and Benton townships to contract with MFPD for fire protection service. So MFPD’s 2021 budget includes the contracts with Washington and Benton townships.

That means MFPD will be adding five townships worth of geography to its coverage area. According to Dillard, in 2021 MFPD will serve nearly 45,000 Monroe County citizens, 19,000 housing units, covering 317 square miles, or 77 percent of Monroe County.

The other reason the budget is bigger is that it reflects more than just a consolidation of departments. The 2021 budget includes 13 additional full-time and 20 additional part-time firefighters. Eight of the 13 full-time positions will be in place on Jan. 1, 2021 and the additional five will be added in the second half of the year, Dillard said.

Dillard summed it up this way: “In addition to merging the three together, we have more on top of that, that really make for a massive budget.”

County councilors on Tuesday night were receptive to Dillard’s presentation. Councilor Geoff McKim said, “I do completely support this merger. And I support this budget.” McKim told Dillard, “I think you’ve done a terrific job of explaining it.”

McKim wanted to make sure that residents of the townships that had joined the district understood that their property taxes would be going up. The property tax rate they’ll pay for fire protection will rise to the uniform rate of $0.3955.

Residents of the five MFPD 2021 member townships currently pay less than that. Clear Creek, Indian Creek, and Perry townships, as 2020 members of MFPD, paid the same rate of $0.1633 in 2020. Bloomington Township residents paid $0.3306 in 2020. Residents of Van Buren, the other new member township paid $0.2520 in 2020.

The other point that McKim was keen to pin down was whether the increased staffing at MFPD stations would lead to a restoration of the automatic aid arrangement that previously existed between MFPD and the city of Bloomington’s fire department. There’s still a mutual aid agreement, but not one that’s baked into the dispatch protocols in the same way that automatic aid would be.

Dillard indicated he thinks the stations that had previously been covered under automatic aid would now meet required standards. That’s due to the increased levels of staffing at the stations, which are incorporated in the 2021 budget.

During the Bloomington city council’s budget hearings last week, Bloomington Fire Department chief Jason Moore was asked about the automatic aid arrangement. Moore first pointed to the mutual aid agreements, “We are available for them and we know that they’re available for us.”

On the topic of automatic aid, Moore said, “When you discuss things like automatic aid, we still have a discrepancy in the type of system that they’re using versus what we’re using.” Moore described how the idea seemed to be for MFPD to cover all of the county except for the city of Bloomington and at that point, Moore said, “They will be more compatible with our model, to consider things like automatic aid.”

Dillard was presenting the 2021 MFPD budget to the county council on Tuesday out of more than just courtesy. It has to be approved by the county council. County councilors could have more to say about the MFPD budget at a Sept. 11 work session. The budget hearing is set for Sept. 29 with a vote scheduled for Oct. 14.

At their Tuesday work session, county councilors briefly discussed their upcoming vote next Monday as part of the  tax council, which also includes the Bloomington city council and the Ellettsville town council. The county council supports making some allocations of public safety local income tax (PS-LIT) funds directly to rural fire departments, like MFPD.

In early August, the two county council reps were outvoted 5–2 on the PS-LIT committee of the tax council, which made a recommendation against any direct allocations to rural departments this year.

The county council’s upcoming vote on the issue, scheduled for Aug. 31, is a way for the council to give the rural fire departments a chance to make a public case for direct allocations, and for the council to deliver a statement in support of the rural departments.

The Bloomington city council has enough weighted votes on the tax council to make the PS-LIT distributions go through without any direct allocations to rural departments. The city council could vote on the PS-LIT distributions in early September.