Fire-territory consultant Paige Gregory of H.J. Umbaugh & Associates made
one thing very clear at the beginning of her presentation on Monday before a
roomful of Duneland firefighters and municipal officials, gathered at the
town hall at the Chesterton Fire Department’s invitation: a fire territory
absolutely depends—just to get off the ground in the first place—on the full
cooperation and trust of all the parties involved.
Which means—if the hard-edged questions asked, and the tendentious points
made, by attendees are any indication—that no fire territory involving any
of the Tri-Towns will ever get off the ground.
A fire territory, stripped down to its basics, is this: a separate taxing
unit formed by two or more towns or townships to provide fire protection to
a designated area. It has the authority under Indiana Code to levy a
property-tax assessment on all property owners in that area, works to spread
the cost of that protection over a larger tax base, has the potential to
streamline operations, and is intended among other things to improve
response times and efficiency.
So far, so good.
Gregory went into some detail about the timeline of establishing a fire
territory; how property owners would not be double-taxed for fire
protection, since the overall municipal tax rate would be reduced by that
proportion of the General Fund dedicated to a town’s fire department; on the
possibility of a net decrease in the fire-protection tax rate paid by
property owners, and on the greater probability of a net increase; and how a
fire territory, on its first being established, is not actually funded until
the first property-tax revenue draw in the following year.
But it became quickly apparent on Monday that one issue in particular would
be the sticking point, should the Tri-Towns ever seriously consider the
establishment of a fire territory: the matter of selecting the territory’s
so-called “provider unit,” which has total responsibility for adopting the
fire territory’s budget, accounting for the territory’s financial
activities, and administering all other budgetary and fiscal matters.
In practice, that is, the Tri-Towns would have to agree to pick one town
council—Chesterton’s, Porter’s, or Burns Harbor’s—to serve as the provider
unit. In other words, two of the Tri-Towns would have to agree to allow the
third to exercise all meaningful authority over their own fire departments,
their department’s assets, and even their department’s employees, since all
firefighters would legally and practically become the employees of the
established fire territory.
“This is sometimes the stopping point,” Gregory noted. “Who’s going to be
the provider unit? It can be sticky. It truly takes cooperation. If you
can’t trust the provider unit’s fiscal body to make sound fiscal decisions,
this isn’t going to work.”
Under Indiana Code, Gregory did say, an “executive board” can be created for
the fire territory, comprised of representatives of all the towns and
townships participating in the territory. But it is purely an advisory body,
at least when it comes to fiscal matters, and the provider unit is under no
legal obligation to abide by the executive board’s recommendations.
From the audience:
How would assets and vehicles be disposed of?
How would duties be assigned?
How would complaints from one town’s residents about fire service be
addressed when the provider unit is another town’s council?
All of these matters would need to be clearly specified in the fire
territory’s enabling ordinance, identical versions of which would have to be
enacted by each participating town or township, Gregory said.
But former Porter Town Council member Bill Sexton probably summed up folks’
concerns the best when he made the observation that Porter or Burns Harbor
residents who might object to the way the Chesterton Town Council is serving
as provider unit—just to take a hypothetical example—simply would not have
the opportunity to vote the Chesterton council members out and candidates of
their own in.
Chesterton Town Council Member Jeff Trout, R-2nd, apparently responding to
the mood, did take a moment at the end of the meeting to reassure the
audience. “It’s not a grab or a power move,” he said. “We’re just trying to
figure out the best way to provide service to everyone in the community.”