Benton Township now in Monroe Fire Protection District, Washington Township in queue

At its weekly Wednesday morning meeting, Monroe County’s board of commissioners approved the inclusion of Benton Township in the Monroe Fire Protection District (MFPD). Benton Township will become a member on Jan. 1, 2022.

Sooner than that, Benton Township will start getting backup fire protection from the district for its volunteer fire department. A $450,000 contract between the MFPD and Benton Township will bridge the year between the end of Benton’s contract with Northern Monroe Fire Territory—because the two-township NMFT is dissolving—and the start of its membership in the MFPD.

The NMFT is dissolving because one of the two NMFT members, Bloomington Township, is joining the MFPD starting Jan. 1, 2021. The other NMFT member, Washington Township, is in the queue to join MPFD starting in 2022, on the same timeline as Benton Township. Public meetings on the topic for Washington Township start Sept. 30.

Last year, Van Buren Township, like Bloomington Township, was approved for inclusion in the MFPD.

If Washington Township’s inclusion in the fire district is approved later this year, that will mean 9 of the county’s 11 townships will be MFPD members or under contract for fire protection services from the MFPD. The two remaining townships, Bean Blossom and Richland, could eventually be included in the MFPD.

At Wednesday’s meeting, county attorney Jeff Cockerill reviewed for commissioners how the conditions for inclusion of Benton Township in the MFPD had been met. That included petitions from 20 percent of “freeholders owning property” in the township, which worked out to 402 signatures.  Cockerill reported that 425 signatures had been obtained.

Property owners in Benton Township would pay more for fire protection in 2022 in connection with an MFPD merger. Benton Township’s fire tax rate of $0.1211 would be replaced with MFPD’s rate of $0.2968. That would more than double the amount paid for fire protection in Benton Township, but would increase the total tax rate of $1.2890 by about 13.6 percent, to $1.4647

At Wednesday’s meeting of the county commissioners, Benton Township trustee Michelle Bright recited the history of the township’s effort to find solutions to its fire protection needs. “Securing fire protection for the future has been a very, very long road for us as a township. There have been times over the years when I wasn’t sure if we were ever going to find a solution. And I want everyone to know that this decision was not taken lightly by either myself or the board at any time,” Bright said.

Among the benefits of joining the MFPD described by Bright were full-time firefighters staffing the Benton Township station. That would improve response times to many residents, and to the local elementary school, Bright said. She hoped to see a significant decrease in homeowner premiums within five road miles of the station, once it is staffed.

Volunteer firefighters would continue to serve the community, too, Bright said.

Chief of Benton’s volunteer fire department, Charley Powers, said at Wednesday’s meeting that he wished it were not necessary to join the fire protection district. “I do wish that I could do it on my own. I wish things were different, and we could do it with all volunteers, but… I really don’t see any other option at this point other than merging with the district.”

Powers said he’d gone door-to-door to talk to residents about the merger. “I heard everything from, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the worst world’s worst idea!’ to ‘I wish it would have happened five years ago!’ And then everything in between.”

Powers added that as a taxpayer who has some property in the township, he certainly understands “the negatives from the cost perspective.”

Also going door-to-door in the township on behalf of the MFPD merger was resident Ernie Frazo. During the public hearing at Wednesday’s meeting, he reported that he’d encountered three kinds of objections. One was from those he called “diehard tax resistors, who wouldn’t pay a penny to save their own life.” About them, Frazo said, “Their houses, farms and fields could burn without this merger, despite their objections to taxes.”

A second category of objections came from those residents who had never used either fire protection or emergency medical services and see no need to pay more for it, Frazo reported. “That’s wishful thinking, that they will never need those services, but their neighbors will,” Frazo said.

The third category of objections came from residents who own property, around the lake, Frazo said. Their property is inaccessible to fire trucks, ambulances and other emergencies vehicles because of the rugged terrain and vegetation. “That’s the choice they made and they stick by it,” Frazo said.

In none of the cases where people had objections did they mention the fact that there is an elementary school approximately a half a mile from the fire station and the 200 to 300 people who are there deserve the protection that the fire district merger could provide, Frazo said.

“As an infrequent user of emergency services, I can appreciate these people,” Frazo said. He added, “But there’s more to it than that. As a member of the community, we pay taxes to provide services to maintain public health and safety.”

The decision to approve the inclusion of Benton Township into the Monroe Fire Protection District did not appear to be in any way controversial among commissioners. They all expressed their support of the decision before voting unanimously in favor.