Leo council reopens fire territory discussion

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Council members agree a fire territory is an option, but not only option

Members of Northeast Allen County Fire and EMS gather at Leo-Cedarville Town Hall to convince Town Council members to reconsider joining a fire territory alongside Grabill, Cedar Creek Township and Springfield Township. (Louis Wyatt)

By LOUIS WYATT
lwyatt@kpcmedia.com

LEO-CEDARVILLE — Leo-Cedarville Town Council members reentered discussion with Northeast Allen County Fire and EMS on the possibility of forming a fire territory between Leo, Grabill, Cedar Creek Township and Springfield Township last month. However, through nearly two hours of debate during their May 21 meeting, council members remained concerned about which entity would serve as the providing unit, and whether or not it would be the best decision for taxpayers.

Dozens of firefighters, paramedics and town residents gathered at Town Hall during the meeting, encouraging council to reconsider an agreement with the other three entities involved. The town of Leo-Cedarville previously lent its support to an inter-local agreement with the other three entities last fall, but that process “stalled out,” said council member Greg Peck, who served as a representative for the town during those negotiations.

Northeast Fire and EMS has gone on 763 runs already this year — an increase of 45 runs since the previous year and 116 more than in 2017 — Northeast Fire and EMS Chief Tim George said. The creation of a fire territory would implement a tax to support department equipment and the addition of full-time firefighters to supplement the department’s volunteers — both necessities according to George, who blamed Leo’s town council for the failure to establish a fire territory last year.

“It flat out stalled out and died because of the power trip amongst members of the town council. We were definitely having momentum in the right direction and it just died, so now basically we’re left here with budget shortfalls because the fire trucks go up 3% every year, and we’re barely getting increases,” George said, adding that because of his department’s lack of career firefighters, it oftentimes has to rely on Huntertown and other departments, though the distance between their stations and Leo oftentimes results in otherwise-avoidable property damage.

Scott Yoder, a volunteer firefighter and paramedic, said his house was lost to a fire recently because of Northeast’s lack of around-the-clock paid staff and other departments’ response times.

Shedding light on Leo’s decision to pull out of the previous agreement, Town Manager Patrick Proctor said in the case of a split decision between territory members, the providing unit would be given veto power, which was a cause for concern from Leo-Cedarville. Proctor added that while he believes a fire territory is a viable option, when he read the inter-local agreement about a year ago, he was concerned with some of its provisions. However, he said, if the council wants to move ahead with creating a fire territory, it should begin working on the process as soon as possible, as it would only be able to pass an ordinance between Jan. 1 and April 1. Otherwise, the process would be delayed at least another year.

Leo resident Tyler Witmer, one of the many Northeast Fire and EMS representatives in attendance at last month’s meeting, pleaded with council members to put aside their differences with the other three entities involved.

“Really what it comes down to is that nobody is willing to put the trust into anybody else,” he said. “They want to be in power, they want to be in control and they don’t trust the person next door, and I think this stems probably farther than just the fire territory.”

Though council members agreed a fire territory could be a good option for the town, not all saw it as the only possibility. Council member Ray Pulver, a retired Fort Wayne firefighter, motioned for the town to hire a consultant to weigh the benefits of a fire territory versus creating a fire district or an independent department within Leo-Cedarville.

While he said he believed there was some validity to Pulver’s argument, as a Leo resident, Witmer was not privy to the idea of significantly increasing tax rates in order to fund a town department.

“I’ve researched the costs of opening a fire station,” he said. “Without sharing the cost across communities, I really think you guys will break your citizens. … You’re going to run out people in this town who aren’t millionaires.”

Council member Scott Connally also said he wasn’t in favor of building a station within town limits, while Peck recommended the council move forward with the fire territory.

“We’re going to end up with more growth up here, we’re going to end up with more possibilities of property loss and life loss, and it’s a necessity,” Peck said, adding that without a partnership with other entities, he doesn’t believe the town could handle the tax burden associated with creating its own department.

Council President John Eastes said while Leo would be a capable providing unit because of its staff and five-member council, he was concerned about how it would affect the town’s debt service. While there were still many details to hammer out, he said, a township could be a more viable providing unit because of its greater assessed value. Nevertheless, he said he still wanted more information before lending his support to a fire territory.

“I just want to make sure that this is the best way to go, that it’s put together right. Nobody in this council or any other councils or boards want to see EMS protection be anything but as good as it is or better, I’m sure … but I think there are some unanswered questions,” Eastes said.

Connally suggested the town organize a meeting with other entities before making a determination.

“Everyone needs to talk openly and honestly before we go anywhere,” he said.