Tax hikes no safe bet for fire districts

After spending nearly $2 million last year for equipment and other items, the county’s largest fire department was hoping to slightly increase taxes and rebuild savings.

But the county turned down the White River Township Fire Department, saying officials could find other ways to save money outside of increasing taxes.

More than a year earlier, the Bargersville Fire Department was allowed to increase one of its tax rates, in exchange for not collecting as much property tax money for debt.

Every local fire department charges property owners a general fund rate, which pays for salaries and benefits, and a cumulative fund rate, which helps pay for equipment purchases, such as fire trucks or hoses. Some also collect a debt fund rate, which pays off any loans borrowed for new fire stations, trucks or other equipment.

All six local fire districts have a cumulative fund tax rate, although how much they charge varies. White River Township, Bargersville, Needham, Whiteland and Amity all have rates close to the maximum, while Hensley fire district, which pays for the Trafalgar Fire Department, charges less, and Nineveh fire district charges the least. The cumulative fund cannot be higher than 3.33 cents per $100 of taxable property. For a $250,000 home in White River Township, for example, that works out to about $44 in taxes per year.

As the values of property increase, that rate will gradually go down, meaning the fire department is not collecting the maximum amount of tax dollars possible for equipment purchases and other projects. If fire departments want to collect the maximum amount, they have to get permission from the county to increase the tax rate each year.

This year and last year, White River Township fire asked to charge that maximum amount and was turned down. If the fire department had been allowed to increase its rate, that would have brought in another $25,000 per year in taxes, which could go toward equipment purchases and other projects. Being able to collect that money allows the fire department to put more into savings and earn more interest on that savings, White River Township Fire Chief Jeremy Pell said.

But commissioners questioned whether the fire department could find that money elsewhere in its $7 million budget. Raising that rate could affect other local governments in the county, since taxpayers can be charged only so much under tax caps, which limit how much a property owner can pay based on the property’s value, Commissioner Ron West said.

White River Fire Department had about $111,000 in its cumulative fund at the end of last year. The department spent about $1.9 million out of that fund that year and brought in about $450,000, according to the state’s Gateway website, which tracks government budgets and spending.

Most of that money was spent on a new ladder truck and a new fire engine, which the fire department was able to buy in cash, rather than taking out a loan, Pell said. The fire department currently has no debt.

That was the highest amount spent by any local fire department out of that fund last year. By comparison, the Whiteland and Nineveh fire departments didn’t spend anything out of that fund last year. The Hensley fire district spent $275,000 but still had more than $292,000 in savings by the end of last year, according to the Gateway website.

Fire officials want to continue collecting the maximum amount so that money can be set aside for future purchases and build interest while in savings, Pell said. If the department has to borrow money to buy a vehicle because there isn’t enough money in savings, such as if one breaks down, that ends up costing more through legal fees and interest, Pell said.

The Bargersville Fire Department’s cumulative rate was increased to the maximum amount in 2014, nearly doubling. With the increase, officials put together a plan to pay off debt, lowering their debt tax rate. Between 2014 and 2015, the fire department’s debt rate was cut by more than 40 percent.

The cumulative rate collects about $250,000 per year for Bargersville fire, and that money can be used only for purchases of equipment or other projects — not staffing. But by using that money to pay for those purchases and debt for past loans, such as the newest fire station on State Road 135, more money in the general fund can be used to pay for staffing, Bargersville Fire Chief Jason Ramey said.

That’s important as the fire department continues to try to hire more staff in the future, Ramey said.

Currently, the fire department has 32 full-time employees, including administration, and a minimum of 10 people on staff each shift at its two fire stations. The goal is to have 13 people on each shift, but that can be difficult when people take days off or are on vacation, he said. He hopes that with hiring more employees in future years, they can have a minimum of 13 staff on each shift.

This year, the fire department’s cumulative fire rate went slightly down, but the fund had a balance of about $181,000 at the end of 2014. The goal is to build a savings in that fund to be able to buy equipment, such as fire trucks, without needing to borrow money, Ramey said.