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Planned Fire Dept. Funding Change Raises Questions
September 3, 2008 - The town of Knightstown's legal counsel has raised questions about an attempt to shift responsibility for funding fire protection services for the town to Wayne Township.
The Knightstown Town Council and the Wayne Township Advisory Board voted in May and June, respectively, to pass resolutions intended to change how the Knightstown-Wayne Township Volunteer Fire Department is funded. Beginning in 2009, the town would stop collecting property taxes for fire protection services, with all funding for the department coming from a fire protection levy imposed by the township.
At the Knightstown Town Council's Aug. 21 meeting, attorney Gregg Morelock advised members of the Knightstown Town Council that the they should have passed an ordinance, not a resolution, approving the new arrangement. He said the statute is clear: While the township is required to pass a resolution to effect the change, the town must give its assent through an ordinance.
A second issue Morelock brought to the council's attention was that the resolutions previously passed by the council and township advisory board, as written, affect more than just department funding. He said he was concerned that council members might not understand that the interlocal agreement the town and township approved in late 2006 would be superceded by the new arrangement.
Under the 2006 interlocal agreement, which is still in effect, the department's operation is overseen by a five-member fire board. The town and township each appoint two members to the board for two year terms, with the fifth member being appointed by the town and township in alternating years.
Morelock said the new agreement creates a township fire territory that does more than change the way the department is funded. He said it also places all the power in terms of overseeing the fire department in the hands of the township.
"You really don't have much input unless (the township) allows you to have input," Morelock told the council.
Under the new agreement, which he said may be good from a financial standpoint, Morelock said the town could make recommendations to the township regarding the annual fire budget. However, he said those recommendations would have no binding effect.
"When push comes to shove … (the township) ultimately gets to make the decision if there's a dispute," Morelock said.
Morelock said that whether the council wants to keep the joint town-township fire board set up under the 2006 agreement is "a policy decision, not a legal one." He said he thought Wayne Township Trustee Randy Overman was receptive to revising the new agreement so as to keep the fire board and that the township's resolution and the ordinance the town needs to pass could both be amended to keep the joint fire board in place.
Council member Steve Nelson, one of two council members who serves on the fire board, said he had believed the fire board would continue under the new agreement. He also said he didn't think Overman knew that creating the new township fire territory would eliminate the town-township fire board.
Council member Terry Guerin said his immediate concern was whether the fire territory would result in turning power over to the township or township trustee. Saying that's not how the new agreement had been explained to him, Guerin said he thought the town and township need to go back to the table to make sure the current power structure is maintained.
"I personally don't want to relinquish control of the fire department to the township trustee," Council President Valerie Trump said. "That's the last thing I want to do."
Trump asked what would happen if the council did not pass an ordinance to replace the resolution erroneously passed in May. Morelock said the attempt to create the fire territory would not comply with statutory requirements if an ordinance is not passed.
Guerin said maybe the council should approach the issue from that angle - that the new township fire territory was not properly created. Morelock said if that's the way the council chooses to proceed, the town would need to include fire protection as part of its 2009 budget.
Morelock said he would start working on drafting the ordinance the town would need to pass, and amend it to keep the joint town-township fire board now in place. Nelson and fellow council member Bob Weber, who is also on the fire board, will work with Morelock on this.
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