Monroe County councilors take unanimous, futile vote to support rural fire departments

Monroe County councilors voted 7–0 Monday night in favor of a resolution supporting the direct allocation of about $353,700 in public safety local income tax (PS-LIT) revenues to four rural fire departments in the county.

The county council took the vote as a member of the tax council, which includes two other governing bodies in the county—the Bloomington city council and the Ellettsville town council.

Monday night’s vote will not have an impact on how the roughly $7.8 million in PS-LIT revenues will be allocated.

That’s because a seven-member PS-LIT committee of the tax council had already voted 5–2 to recommend no allocation of direct funding to the rural fire departments. Also, the statutory deadline for the tax council to make the direct allocation for the funding of rural fire departments is Aug. 31.

Acknowledging the futility of Monday’s vote, president of the county council Eric Spoonmore said, “A lot of people would probably say: Well, why are you all even having this meeting? The city council is already made the decision. It doesn’t make any sense. And it’s pointless.”

Spoonmore’s answer: “Well, to me, there is a point to all of this, and it’s to show my support. And this is our last final opportunity to do that. And I’m very happy to do so.”

On the PS-LIT committee, it was the votes of four Bloomington city councilmembers, plus one from an Ellettsville town councilor, that blocked the recommendation for the same kind of funding for rural fire departments that had been forthcoming in the last couple of years.

The departure from the prevailing  custom was lamented on Monday night by county council president Eric Spoonmore. A big part of what had persuaded him to vote in favor of the PS-LIT increase in 2016 was knowing that the rural fire departments would benefit, Spoonmore said.

Spoonmore called the PS-LIT committee’s decision “disappointing to say the least,” but hoped this year’s allocation would be just a “temporary situation.”

Given his expectations connected to his 2016 support of the tax increase, and the lack of allocation this year, Spoonmore added, “It makes me feel almost a little hoodwinked…”

In early August, the two dissenting votes on the 5–2 PS-LIT committee vote were from county councilors Geoff McKim and Cheryl Munson. On Monday night, the two again expressed solid support for the rural departments.

Monday’s meeting of the county council was a chance for the four rural fire departments to publicize the case for their funding requests, which included mobile repeaters, a station remodeling project to make it livable for full-time firefighters, and a station exhaust system. The departments in question are Monroe County Fire Protection District, and fire departments serving Richland, Bean Blossom, and Benton townships.

Monday’s meeting was also a chance for county councilors to give the public a tutorial about the way the state statute is set up to allocate PS-LIT funding to four different jurisdictions in the county—Bloomington, Monroe County, Ellettsville, and Stinesville.

Income taxes paid by individuals for support public safety aren’t distributed exactly to the jurisdictions where the individuals live. Instead, income tax revenues are distributed based on a proportion of property taxes collected by each jurisdiction.

That leaves out the hosting jurisdictions of rural fire departments (townships) and the Monroe Fire Protection District, which is itself a taxing unit. To make up for that, the state statute [IC 6-3.6-6-8]  says that the tax council “shall review an application” of a “fire department, volunteer fire department, or emergency medical services provider” for direct allocation of PS-LIT funds. That review of applications does not, under the statute, have to result in allocations.

In the last couple of years, the mandatory review of applications from Monroe County’s rural fire departments to the tax council has resulted in some allocations—about 4.5 percent of the total available allocation each year.

As McKim put it, it was “the meandering path of legislative history” that led to the exclusion of the county’s fire protection property tax levies from the formula for PS-LIT distribution. Monroe County government itself doesn’t collect any property taxes that are used for fire protection. But departments in the county like the Monroe County Fire Protection District do collect property taxes for fire protection, McKim pointed out.

McKim likened the Monroe Fire Protection District (MFPD) to Monroe County’s fire department, except that the property taxes collected by the MFPD don’t help increase the amount of PS-LIT distributed to Monroe County.

“Remember the county does, in a way, have a fire department that it’s responsible for. It’s the Monroe Fire Protection District, which has a board that’s entirely appointed by the county commissioners. Their budget and tax rates are set by the Monroe County council—just like we set the budget and tax rates that support the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department,” McKim said.

McKim added, “However, that fire tax levy does not count towards the county’s allocation of public safety LIT, while the city’s fire department does count towards theirs.”

The statutorily required review of applications from rural fire departments by the tax council, and the subsequent optional allocation of PS-LIT money to those departments, is included in state law to provide a remedy for the omission elsewhere in the legislation, McKim said.

Councilor Cheryl Munson made the same point as McKim, but from the angle of fairness: “Every single person pays income tax into the public safety fund that live in the county—not just people who live in Ellettsville and Bloomington, but also the people who live in the unincorporated areas of the county. My position all along has been one of equity, fairness.”

Munson said that because the rural fire departments are not receiving any direct allocations this year, “Certainly, there are many people who are residents of Monroe County, that are not going to be getting their fair share of the revenue that they paid into.”

City-county connections

McKim tied to a thread started by other county councilors on Monday involving the connections between the city and county. McKim’s angle on that was to elicit from MFPD chief Dustin Dillard some perspective on the flow of benefit from the mutual aid agreements between his department and Bloomington’s fire department.

Previously, up until last year, those mutual aid agreements were treated as automatic aid agreements, where nearby stations were automatically alerted at the time of dispatch, as opposed to waiting to determine if additional resources were needed.

When automatic aid was in place, Dillard said, “It was far more common for MFPD to provide fire assistance to [Bloomington]. I would have to revisit those numbers, but there were some years where it was probably 10 to 1, we may respond to the south side [of Bloomington] 100 times and we may receive about 10 responses outside.

In his wrap-up, McKim said, “We’re all interconnected. Township and county fire departments provide mutual aid, and hopefully will someday again provide automatic aid. We all depend on each other during emergencies. This process of allocating funding for township fire departments has provided in the past an effective opportunity for collaboration between the city and the county.”

Councilor Marty Hawk pointed to the interconnectedness of city and county life: “People will not just live in the city. They also work in the county. Many of them, they shop in the county. They recreate in the county. Their family members live out there. Fire protection is important… When you call for fire protection you want someone to show up.”

The county council’s Monday meeting was noticed to the public, and according to county attorney Margie Rice, the Bloomington city council and the Stinesville and Ellettsville town councils were invited to attend. Ellettsville had one taker in the form of William Ellis, as did Stinesville in the form of Lois Purcell.

No one from the Bloomington city council attended Monday’s meeting. Spoonmore’s closing remarks were pointed with respect to their absence: “I want to thank all of you, my fellow [county] council members for being here tonight. Being present is really important, especially with these types of issues, and I’m a little saddened by the lack of participation from some other units of government that could have came here to voice their support as well.”

Indirect funding?

Because the rural fire departments aren’t getting any direct PS-LIT allocations this year, the money that would have gone to support those departments will be distributed to the other jurisdictions: Bloomington, Monroe County, Ellettsville and Stinesville.

In round numbers, Monroe County government will receive around $160,000 more in PS-LIT revenue than it would have, if the rural departments had received direct funding.

Would the county council consider using that extra money to cover some portion of the projects, totaling $353,700, which the rural departments had requested?

McKim told The Square Beacon: “We have not discussed it, but I think it should definitely be on the table.” He added, “We would have to talk to the departments and see if they could still accomplish the requested projects with a diminished award,” McKim added. He said he would support such an allocation out of the Monroe County’s share of the PS-LIT.

Responding to the same question, Spoonmore said, “We’ll be looking closely at how county government can further support fire protection for Monroe County residents, whether it’s with or without partnership from our colleagues [in Bloomington].”