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Fire officials make case for levy hike
Fire officials make case for levy hike
By JOSEPH KOZIOL JR.
Voters in the city of Chardon could be asked to pay more for fire and rescue services this fall.
City Council's safety committee recommended last week that council consider a 1-mill increase for its levy this November to cover the city's contract with the Chardon Fire Department. The city has relied on renewals of a 4-mill levy for the past eight years to fund the fire-and-rescue contract.
If voters approve the additional tax, city Manager Randal Sharpe said, the cost for homeowners would increase from $111.33 to $141.96 annually for each $100,000 of valuation.
The committee haggled unsuccessfully with fire officials last week in an attempt to reduce a proposed three-year budget for the department that averages increases of 3.4 percent each year. The proposed operating budget rises from $1.4 million to $1.5 million over the three years under the proposed contract.
The fire department, which agreed to make a concession on its projected increases in health-care costs, lowering them from 20 percent to 12 percent, would not budge when city officials asked for additional concessions.
City Council President Philip King asked for a smaller proposed increase for pay raises than the 4 percent sought by the department. "I'm just not ready to jump in with 4 percent pay raises," he said.
The city's police have had no raises in the past two years and a third year of that contract depends on the city's finances, Mr. King said.
Assistant Fire Chief Thomas Hummel asked whether the city had asked the paving company that has contracted for work on city streets this year planned to give its workers raises with the money.
Mr. King said no.
"I don't think you should address how we spend our budget," Mr. Hummel said.
Christopher Grossman, president of the fire department's board of trustees, said the increase also covers implementation of the payroll system. He said the department has acted frugally, employing someone to handle payroll for its 50 members for a "couple thousand," when it could cost as much $25,000 to $30,000 a year. He said raises are not automatic for fire department members but are granted on a merit system.
Mr. Grossman said the city receives a bargain for the services it receives. He said the Chardon Fire Department operates on less than a third of what it would cost for the city to own and operate its own department.
Fire Chief Larry Gaspar said the increases in the budget are not intended to expand the department, only to maintain the services already being provided. "We are not getting rich," he said. The department is still "playing catchup" from its years as a volunteer operation and wants to retain its members by paying a little higher wages rather than lose them, he said.
Mr. Gaspar said most other departments pay more than the Chardon department. Bainbridge, for example, pays its starting members $10 more an hour than Chardon does, he said. And Chardon handles about 1,600 calls a year, compared to Bainbridge's approximately 1,200 calls, he said.
Larry Baptie, another trustee of the fire department, said it spends between $8,000 and $10,000 to train its paramedics.
Mr. King asked whether the department would consider extending the life of its vehicles in an attempt to lower costs.
Mr. Gaspar said Chardon is one of the few departments to stretch the life of its vehicles to 20 years. "You don't keep plows or police cars for 20 years," he said.
Ronald Jonovich, a trustee and treasurer for the fire department, said, if one of the police cars or plows "breaks down, they leave it at the side of the road. If we break down, someone dies."
Mr. King said he wanted a guarantee that, if the levy fails, the fire department would still provide coverage. He said, without the levy, the city would not have money to cover the contract and would be forced to make layoffs and cut services.
Mr. Gaspar said, without the city's funding, the fire department also would be forced to make drastic cuts. He said that would put residents in Chardon and Claridon townships in jeopardy because of increased response times. The city would be without services if it cannot pay the contract, he said.
Councilwoman Deborah Reiter said the city is considering whether to provide money to build a new log cabin on Chardon Square. She would rather see the money used for fire and rescue services, she said. "I put value where value is."
She said residents do not have a say in proposed water and sewer rate hikes, but they will with the fire levy. "They can determine the value," she said.
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