Proposition Fire will be on the ballots of Union Fire Protection voters in November.
The fire district is seeking an increase in its property tax levy. Fire Chief Russ Hamilton said the proposition is to address the financial needs of the district.
“Over the last four years, we’ve been having conversations about this trend,” he said. “We knew we were going to have to do something. We started seriously talking about it two years ago — the last thing we want to do is go to the voters and ask for money. We’ve talked and talked about it, and we’ve come to the reality that it’s going to have to happen. We don’t have a whole lot of choice.”
The tax increase will be presented to voters at the Nov. 6 election. Voters will vote yes to support the increase and no to keep the levy at 30 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.
If passed, the levy would increase from 30 cents to 61 cents. Hamilton said the district plans to only collect 43 cents on the 61-cent property tax levy.
The current 30-cent levy was set in 1976. The rate stayed the same until 2010.
Voters passed a sales tax to support the fire district.
Hamilton said the 2010 sales tax measure was passed at a time when Union retail appeared to be growing. The sales tax allowed the district to decrease the amount of property tax it collected.
Prior to the sales tax, the tax levy was set at 30 cents and Hamilton said the district was collecting about 25 cents. With the sales tax funds, the property tax dipped to 12 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.
The idea was that sales tax revenue would be able to support the district going forward, but that hasn’t been the case, Hamilton said.
“We were led to believe that sales tax was going to be our main source of revenue in the city of Union,” he said. “It just hasn’t happened.”
Initially switching to the sales tax looked promising, but Hamilton said growth has stalled and the sales tax hasn’t grown by as much as expected.
“If the sales tax does pick up, it will reduce the property tax down like it did before,” he said.
Daily operations are covered by the sales tax, but Hamilton said the district’s savings, or capital operations fund, is depleting.
“I’ll tell you what sales tax does do, it’s 100 percent on the mark for daily operations,” Hamilton said. “. . . We know that sales tax would probably continue to cover our daily operations, but the big kicker is our savings.”
After the sales tax collection started, the district replaced an aging apparatus, upgraded its training and doing other things to reduce its Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating to a 4.
“That’s a big plus for the citizens,” he said. “That makes insurance cheaper.”
Once that initial bump was over, the only time the district saw its savings grow was when it sold an old piece of equipment that had been replaced. Hamilton pointed out that’s not really a sustainable business plan to sell off equipment.
The dwindling savings impacts future planning, Hamilton said. The district has some aging equipment, including trucks that will need to be replaced sooner rather than later. Those apparatus can cost close to a $1 million.
“The last pumper we purchased was in 2014,” he said. “That replaced a 1988 pumper. The 2014 pumper was about $525,000, without equipment and radios. That same pumper today is nearly $200,000 more. It’s crazy.”
Replacing aging equipment is just one part of the equation.
Firefighters have gotten busier in the last decade, Hamilton said. In 2008 the district ran around 900 calls, he said. Last year that number jumped to close to 1,500.
He said the bulk of the calls have sprung up because of development. The eastern part of Union has seen the development of the new Veterans Memorial Park, growth of industrial buildings, residential homes and senior living communities.
To help with the increase in calls, and provide coverage for the growing area, Hamilton said the district wants to add staffing. Instead of just staffing Station 1, located on Springfield Avenue on the west side of Union, the district wants to also place firefighters at Station 3, located to the east at Denmark Road and Progress Parkway.
Station 3 had been traditionally staffed by volunteers, but Hamilton said fire officials think a full-time crew is needed to help with responses in the area.
This summer the fire district did a trial run of staffing both houses. Hamilton said the trial got positive feedback from the community and cut response time to calls in the eastern area by about four minutes.
The only way to afford to pay for additional crews is to increase revenue from taxes, he said.
More development is coming, and it’s one of those upcoming projects that has prompted the fire district to review its plans for the area.
The Union R-XI School District is planning on building a new elementary school near East Central College. Before that’s built, Hamilton said he wants Station 3 staffed.
“That really tipped the scale for us,” he said. “We’ve been talking about manning that station, we need to man that station now.”