By Louis Wyatt
GRABILL — The towns of Leo-Cedarville and Grabill, and Cedar Creek and Springfield townships, were again unable to come to an agreement on the creation of a fire territory between the four entities during a meeting at Grabill Town Hall June 10. Despite a lack of consensus among representatives, the entities are seeking input from townships, cities and towns regarding an 11-body territory that would cover the entirety of East Allen County, following a recommendation from members of Leo’s Town Council last week.
“That would set the standard for the county,” said Leo Council member Ray Pulver, an outspoken proponent of including more entities in the proposed territory. “That way you could actually spread the tax burden over a larger area … but the bottom line is we could provide East Allen County with the best fire and EMS service that other places are providing. This would be the gold standard that other communities would look at.”
Cedar Creek Township Trustee Steven Herman and others in the audience last week were not privy to Pulver’s proposal, citing the failure of the four entities to come to a consensus as reason to believe bringing more bodies to the table would be even more difficult.
“If we can’t get four of us to agree, how are we going to get more than that?” Herman said during the meeting. “My first thought was let’s get us four started first and then as things go on, we go bigger. I’m all for it — I have nothing against it, I think it would be great.”
A fire territory has become attractive to Leo, Grabill, Cedar Creek and Springfield over the years as a way to bring on more paid fire and EMS staff, as Northeast Allen County Fire and EMS continues to struggle with recruiting volunteers. Under the new system, the four entities hope to provide better protection around the clock for their constituents. However, representatives have yet to come to an agreement on stipulations.
During last week’s meeting, Leo-Cedarville Town Council President John Eastes provided several key points that would need to be in the business plan in order for the territory to earn his vote: The territory would have to be a municipal entity with financials made available to the public and state board of accounts, the executive board would have to consist of only elected officials, and all fire and EMS assets from the joining entities would have to be turned over to the territory.
Eastes also said he would not be willing to sign an inter-local agreement until the four entities have a structure in place based on best practices in the industry.
“We need to have some identifiable way that we could justify the property tax (increase), which will happen, I have no doubt,” Eastes said.
Herman’s biggest issue with the proposal was the requirement to forfeit Cedar Creek’s equipment to the territory. Springfield Township Trustee William Harris said he also had reservations. Both trustees had doubts about an out clause included in the proposed agreement, claiming they could lose their equipment, including buildings, if the territory is dissolved.
Leo council member Greg Peck, as well as several residents in the crowd last week, said Herman and Harris’s concerns were moot points considering the equipment would be obsolete in a few years.
“If you feel like you can’t trust the system that’s going to be put in place … we’re in the wrong business,” Eastes told the other representatives. “This is not about your equipment or our equipment, this is about saving lives.”
Rep. Dave Heine, R-Fort Wayne, was also in attendance at last week’s meeting, and suggested the four entities seek input from other townships, cities and towns that have formed fire territories in the past. He also supported pursuing an East Allen territory with more entities.
“When I heard about all of East Allen, that excites me — that would be the ultimate. That would be using our taxpayer dollars wisely if we could do that,” Rep. Heine said.
Maumee Township Trustee Vicki Thompson, who was also in attendance, said she would be in favor of joining the territory, as did Milan Township Trustee Chad MacDowell. New Haven Fire Chief Josh Hale said he favored a four-entity territory with potential to grow in the future, which Peck agreed with.
“I think we need to focus on the four of us together, get it done, and then focus on these other townships,” Peck said. “I’m not saying we can’t do it … but two years ago the fire department came to us and said ‘In two years, we’re going to be hurting bad,’ and they need the extra money, the manpower and everything that we’ve already heard. We’re two years down the road and now we’re talking about including 11 more entities? I’m sorry, we need to stay focused on what we’re doing here and move down the road and add on.”
Another fire territory meeting was scheduled for June 24 at 7 p.m.