Rural fire departments suffering from a volunteer shortage need something more than the half measures under consideration at the Capitol.
A proposal touted by area legislators to give volunteer firefighters and EMS workers tax credits to pay for equipment purchases and training is a nice gesture, but it won’t solve the problems facing communities such as Elkhorn.
Elkhorn and three towns that contract with Elkhorn for fire and emergency medical services are weighing a referendum for 2020 to exceed state-imposed levy limits so they could pay for more staff to fill a gap created by a lack of volunteers. It’s hard enough to persuade voters in one municipality to pass a referendum, let alone a group of them all reliant on the same fire department.
The hope is that all four entities—Elkhorn and the towns of Sugar Creek, Lafayette and Geneva—would back the referendum.
Elkhorn Finance Director James Heilman said if Elkhorn voters were to reject a referendum, it likely would kill the effort for all four entities.
But what happens if Elkhorn passes a referendum and one or more of the towns rejects it?
“It’s an interesting question that’s obviously been broached already, and I don’t know that I would have the answer,” said Heilman, who’ll become city administrator in September.
Ultimately, the city of Elkhorn cannot subsidize another town’s fire and emergency medical services, Heilman added. Every town has to pay its fair share.
The uncertainty facing Elkhorn and these three towns isn’t their doing but a result of the Legislature’s inaction.
Heilman said the Legislature has failed to give municipalities the flexibility they need to make decisions best for their communities. For example, Heilman noted, he would like municipalities to have the ability to charge residents a monthly fee for fire and emergency medical services, moving the expense off property tax bills. But under current statutes, he said, municipalities can’t charge such a fee unless they reduce taxes by a proportionate amount.
The Gazette Editorial Board has advocated allowing municipalities to create fire districts overseen by elected boards and empowered to levy taxes. Similar to school districts, fire districts could span several municipalities and simplify the referendum process. Instead of having to ask multiple municipalities to pass a referendum, fire district voters could decide collectively whether to raise their taxes.
For the record, Heilman said he isn’t a fan of the fire district idea, stating communities don’t need another layer of government.
OK, maybe a fire district isn’t for Elkhorn.
But we feel the Legislature should at least give municipalities the option to create fire districts. Our larger point is that the Legislatures needs to remove the handcuffs from municipalities and let them address their challenges in the best ways they know how.
In the meantime, nobody should pretend tax credits for volunteer firefighters come close to being a solution.