By Dale Hogg
Great Bend Tribune – February 16, 2017
From the heavy-duty bunker gear worn to a fire call to the ever-rising price of equipment, the business of fighting fires has evolved dramatically in the past 30 years, Hoisington Fire Chief Jerry Stricker said Wednesday night.
In light of this, veteran firefighter Stricker was making an impassioned appeal for the formation of a rural fire district in north central Barton County. He addressed city and township officials from the area crowded into a truck bay at the Hoisington Fire Station.
“It’s been a long process to establish a fire district here in Hoisington,” he said. “It will be quite a change.”
However, based on mixed reactions, this change may still be a ways off, if it happens at all. No decision was made Wednesday and follow-up conversations will gauge the support.
Stricker had already met individually with township leaders and the meeting was a chance for questions and concerns.
To understand a district, one first has to understand how the all-volunteer department functions now.
Currently, the HFD falls under City of Hoisington. The city provides the lion’s share of the funding to the tune of about $40,000 per year.
In addition, the department also has five-year contracts to serve Albion, Eureka, North Homestead, South Homestead and Union townships in Barton County, covering over 150 square miles. Collectively, they contribute about $30,000 from their township mill levies.
However, in a district, the department would no longer be a part of the city. Instead, it would be a function of the district which would be a stand-alone taxing entity within the county budget.
It would be governed by either the County Commission or a board of trustees made up of representatives from the townships and cities included. Either one would have total operational authority.
According to a sample budget presented by Hoisington City Manager Jonathan Mitchell Wednesday night, a district-wide mill levy of about 3.5 mills would generate just over $100,000. The money would be collected by the county and held in an account for the district.
“I think there are some real benefits to that,” Mitchell said. It brings in more funding and spreads the burden around amongst all the parties.
“The city wants this to be successful,” Mitchell said.
But, the idea stirred mixed feelings. Some of those gathered grumbled at what they saw as a tax increase for property owners in the townships.
Stricker and Mitchell understood these concerns. With the ag and oil industries in turmoil, property valuations have plummeted requiring a higher mill rate to bring in the needed funding.
But, “the current form is not adequate,” Mitchell said. First, the budget isn’t big enough to operate a department that needs a new $350,000 pumper truck and Hoisington residents are shouldering most of the cost.
If nothing happens, the status quo would remain in tact, Stricker said.
But, it there is enough support, the next step would be to go to the County Commission. The commission would pass a resolution backing the district, publish the public notice twice, open up a protest period and hold a public hearing prior to final approval.
Another option would be to establish the district though a petition process. This would require the signature of 60 percent of the property owners in the area and could take a long time, especially with volunteers, so Mitchell said the resolution method is better.
Under the district, each township would agree to sign on for four years.
The department, then called Hoisington Fire District Number Two, would remain in its current space attached to the back of the Hoisington city building. An interlocal agreement between the city and county would transfer the station, funds and equipment to the district.
“We will be on our own,” Stricker said. “It will be a big learning curve.”
There will be more responsibility, he said. They will be responsible for payroll, maintenance and insurance, matters now handled by the city.
The department has approximately 16 active volunteer members. It has been serving the city since the early 1900s.
Claflin has been a part of Claflin Fire District Number One since 1956. “It works for us,” said Claflin Fire Chief Doug Hubbard, who was invited to share his city’s experience.
Hubbard said his district was formed via petition and today is governed by the commission. It has given the department the opportunity to build a new facility and buy new equipment.
This year, CFD is funded with 5.8 mills. This is up from 3.8 mills last year due to the declining valuations.
If it wasn’t for this system and grants, he said it would be almost impossible to run a department. “We needed more help with finances.”
If the Hoisington district goes through, there would be two fire districts in the county. In the cases of the other communities, such as Ellinwood and Great Bend, they contract with the townships, he said. “That works for them.”
“It’s been 60 years and there have been no problems,” Hubbard said.