By Alan Rusch
Ellsworth County Independent Reporter – January 30, 2014
Submitted by Newz Group Clipping Service – January 31, 2014
Ellsworth County could soon have a third fire district, if a January 16 discussion at the Holyrood Fire Department bears fruit.
The new district would potentially include the cities of Holyrood and Lorraine, plus Palacky, Green Garden and Valley townships.
The new fire district has to be formally initiated by July 1, said Carey Hipp, Holyrood City attorney.
“That means before that, if you are a city, you have to take special action in order to actually go to the county commissioners for approval,” she said. “You have to pass a resolution that says we want to take part in this.”
The townships would have to make a similar recommendation.
Hipp said she’s concerned if a new district is formed by July 1, can it get a board of trustees selected and a budget written and turned in to Ellsworth County clerk Jan Andrews by August 1, the county’s deadline for budget submissions. Budgets need to be approved by the county commissioners by August 10 and certified by the end of August.
“It would be new territory pretty much for everyone in this process,” she noted. “There are reasons why you guys want to hand together, obviously, to try to get the biggest bang for everyone’s buck.”
With regards to funding, Hipp said the best case scenario would see money flowing into the new fire district in January 2015. But it could be a year later than that.
“Really, I think that (a new district) might be the best route,” said Lorraine City Council member. “With the amount of area that you have, and the townships you have, I think that might be the fairest way for all of us to support it evenly.”
“I think our board is in agreement to go ahead and proceed with looking into the fire district,” said Green Garden Township trustee Brent Rolfs.
“The discussion has been brought up at city council meetings, but there has been nothing official,” said Mayor Kenny Schepmann of Holyrood.
Before a motion is put forth and passed by the city council, Schepmann said he would first like to get legal advice from Hipp on what Holyrood’s obligations and liabilities would be if a fire district were established.
“I think the city council is in favor of something like this, but before it’s made official, I’m sure there are some answers to questions we’d like to have before that,” Shepmann said.
Susan Thornton of the Lorraine Fire Department voiced concerns of where monies being raised by her department in building a new fire station in Lorraine would go if the new district were formed.
“That’s something that would have to be discussed,” said Paul J. Kasper, Lorraine City Attorney. “I don’t think anyone in this room wants anyone else to feel like they are being taken advantage of or getting ripped off for doing this.”
“We’re for it if it is going to better our fire department,” Thornton said.
“I really don’t know how the equipment part is going to go–I don’t understand that yet,” Mark Breford, Holyrood Fire Chief, said. “But as far as the buildings, I think the ownership will still be through the City of Holyrood, and then the fire district would pay a rent every month for the use of this building, and the same way for the City of Lorraine.”
Palacky Township trustee Ernie Jezek said he was concerned about the investment Palacky and Valley townships share in equipment, and also how future funding will take place.
“But as far as doing the fire district, we’d be acceptable to that,” he said.
“As far as Valley Township goes, I think were all for it,” said trustee Tony Heitschmidt. “We’ve got a lot invested right now–it’s just how that investment works out in the agreement.”
Hipp said the formation of a new fire district leaves a lot of discretion for those involved to figure out what will best suit them in the process.
“I, obviously, don’t have any expertise in fire, safety, and providing services, so I’m going to leave that up to you guys,” she said.
Hipp noted, however, there are several legal statutes that deal with how a fire district is formed and operated.
“The county commissioners really are in control of it,” she said.
Hipp suggested talking with commissioners to see if they approve of forming the new fire district, and then ask them to initiate the district themselves.
“I think they do have some positive experiences with fire districts, and I think they are probably open to it,” she said.
If the commissioners are not in favor of initiating the start of a new fire district, Hipp said a petition process must be completed.
“That becomes a little bit more complicated, because you have to get signatures, you have to trace those signatures to landowners, maps, and so forth, so it’s more time, obviously,” she said.
If the county commissioners say they are going to initiate a new fire district, Hipp said they would adopt a resolution stating they think it is advisable.
The resolution would then be published in the official county newspaper, and a hearing date set.
“Any taxpayer or elector residing in the county can be heard at that meeting,” Hipp said.
The commissioners then will determine whether or not to move forward. If they do, they pass a resolution, name the district, and set the boundaries. That resolution also has to be published.
Hipp said cities interested in joining the fire district have to publish a notice of intent to the public 20 days before a public meeting on the matter stating they are considering doing so.
“At the meeting they will discuss it and determine whether they want to do it or not,” she said.
The cities will then pass a resolution asking the county commissioners if they can be included in the fire district.
“Then the county commissioners can cover it at any of their meetings,” Hipp said.
If commissioners establish a fire district, Hipp said the next step would be to establish a district board of trustees.
“The statues really say the board of county commissioners will oversee, supervise and control the fire district when it’s formed,” she said. They do have the ability to pass those responsibilities on to a board of trustees.”
The commission decides who will sit on that board of trustees, usually three to nine members.
Hipp said within 60 days after the creation of the new fire district, a governing body composed of three to five members must be appointed. These members all have to be residents of the fire district area for three years preceding their appointments.
“Each person would hold office for three years, and the first ones appointed will be in staggered terms,” she said. County commissioners or the board of trustees will choose replacements to the governing body.
Hipp said the governing body has the power to enter into contracts, buy and sell property, issue bonds, pay compensation, and insure volunteers.
“Essentially, your fire department answers at some point to the city council,” Kasper said. “There already essentially is a board of directors for the fire department, and that is the city council. It (the board of directors) is essentially a city council for the fire district. They aren’t involved in the day-to-day operations, but they do review the overall operations if there are issues.”
Kasper said it is important to keep in mind that anytime a new fire district is created, those taking part lose some local control.
“Right now Holyrood has to make its own decisions, Lorraine has to make its own decisions, and the townships can make their own decisions, so, obviously, there is going to have to be more cooperation and working together to make these decisions,” he said. “We encourage communication–it has to actually work, and not just look good on a budget.”
“I don’t know what time frame you guys are thinking, but if you want to move ahead right away, we need to get our cities on board, make sure all the townships are on board officially and then get to the county commissioners and get that part done so we can move on to the board of trustees, governing body and, eventually, budget,” she said.
Hipp said the fire district can generally levy up to five mills, but could levy more under certain situations. If Holyrood, Lorraine and the three townships all became part of the district, one mill would be able to generate an estimated $26,000 per year.
Hipp will attend the January 21 county commission meeting and let officials know a group is discussing formation of a new fire district.
The next meeting of the group will be at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 10, at the Holyrood Fire Department.
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