Despite meetings and on-going conversation between township representatives and city officials, a fire district covering Hillsboro, Lehigh, and surrounding townships of Menno, Risley, Lehigh, and Liberty is no closer to formation than in past years. However, the plan is not dead.
“If a new fire district formation plan were approved by all the parties involved, it would take a formal request to the county commissioners by May to meet budget deadlines,” Hillsboro Mayor Delores Dalke said. “Nothing will happen this year yet, but if we keep meeting and working on this all year, maybe next year we will see some progress.”
Most fire departments in Marion County operate as fire districts, with mill levies set by township boards to cover expenses. One exception to that rule is an area that includes Hillsboro, part of Menno Township, and Lehigh, Risley, and Liberty townships. Residents living in these places do not have tax dollars specifically designated for fire protection, but volunteer fire departments and overlapping city crews provide protection and service.
Pushing a change from decades-old handshake organization to new fire district formation is demand for a new fire truck to service the area.
However, like many of the issues associated with the formation of a new fire district, facts are unclear as to who wants the new truck and why.
“I understand with a change of this magnitude and this many people involved, that it takes a lot of discussion to get anywhere,” Lehigh Mayor David Terrill said. “But we don’t understand why the City of Hillsboro wants to purchase a new fire truck for $500,000 when the rest of us in the area realize it is not needed.”
Terrill said the City of Lehigh recently made a final payment on a 1973 fire truck, and it is in great shape for service as needed. Cost of their truck was less than $50,000.
“I can see there are advantages for us to join a new fire district,” Terrill said. “But until we get some questions answered as to who will be in charge, how will money be spent, and if we turn over our equipment, will our residents and area citizens be protected as well or better with a new fire district, it is hard for us to get on board.”
Misunderstandings on the issue abound, and Dalke pointed out the City of Hillsboro has put money away for years with a special budget line item toward purchasing needed fire equipment.
“To the best of my knowledge, it was the townships that felt there was a need for a new fire truck,” she said. “This is something rural fire people have talked about for years and years. We just need to find a way to make it an equitable enterprise for everyone.”
Dalke indicated precedents were set more than 30 years ago when townships were in charge of buying new fire equipment as needed.
“We have to get over the fact of whether the township owns the equipment or the city owns the equipment,” she said. “We have to all think of what is the best way to protect all our people, wherever they live, if we want to ever move forward on this.”
Menno Township Clerk Dwight Flaming said he became involved in fire district formation discussions many years ago when he took that position.
“I began asking questions from the start and did a lot of research on this,” Flaming said. “The bottom line is that townships and cities have been underfunding fire protection through the years and it is time to make a better, more equitable plan of action.”
Flaming said the goal of a new fire district for Hillsboro, Lehigh, and the surrounding townships would be to maintain or improve fire equipment while remaining financially responsible.
“The old model is broken and we need to step up to the plate and work together with public safety in mind,” he said.
Goessel Fire Chief Larry Jay helped form Marion County Fire District No. 2 in 1964, which includes Goessel and surrounding townships.
“Basically each fire district has its own budget, funded by a mill levy per acres owned,” Jay said. “It creates an even rate for patrons and allows for planned upgrades.”
Dalke said she hoped meetings on the fire district formation would continue, even though a formal request for such a change would not be necessary now until next May.
“I have a lot of questions that haven’t been answered yet,” she said. “But I think we did make some progress this year. People are talking about it more and are understanding what is legal and what is not. We just have a long way to go yet.”