Rural fire district election set for TuesdayWith just a day left before it goes to a public vote, the proposed Mitchell Rural Fire Protection District is anything but a done deal.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
With just a day left before it goes to a public vote, the proposed Mitchell Rural Fire Protection District is anything but a done deal.
The proposed fire district, should it pass with a majority vote on Tuesday, would replace the Mitchell Rural Fire Association, which currently serves the same areas of Davison and Hanson counties.
The measure, if it passes, will create a legal taxing entity with the power to set and collect property tax levies for the purpose of fire protection of those in the district.
Proponents say it will provide a steady stream of income to cover future fire protection needs and not take money from already struggling township budgets. Opponents believe it will just cost more and will deliver no appreciably different benefits.
The fire district election will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Davison County Fairgrounds Building, 3200 W. Havens, in Mitchell, and only those registered voters who reside in the current fire district — 881 voters at the time election petitions were filed this spring — are eligible to vote in the election.
Absentee ballots can be used and will be accepted until 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Davison County auditor’s office and until 4:30 p.m. Tuesday by the Hanson County auditor.
The proposed taxing district will provide rural fire protection to residents of six townships: all of Perry Township; the north half of Prosper Township (Sections 1-18), the northeast third of Lisbon Township (Sections 1-3; 10-15; and 22-24); the east half of Beulah Township (Sections 1-3; 10-15; and 22-24). In Hanson County the district would include the west two-thirds of Plano Township (Sections 3-10; 15-22; and 27-34) and the northwest quarter of Hanson Township (Sections 4-9 and 16-18).
Alexandria lawyer Jim Davies, who has been advising the MRFD on formation of the fire protection district, declined any personal comment on the merits of the issue.
“They’re going to vote, and what they decide, they decide,” he said.
If the fire district does pass, the auditor will immediately call a meeting of those present at the election site on Tuesday evening and they will elect the Mitchell Rural Fire Protection District’s first five-person board of directors. Initially, five officers will be elected to three, two-year terms of office and two, one-year terms.
There’s been a hustle to get the election finalized because, if the board it is to collect taxes in 2012, must submit its first budget before the end of September.
Do we need this? Opinions divided
But some MRFA board members question the need for a fire district, and pro and con factions on the fire association board are actively seeking support for their respective positions.
The estimated costs of forming the district will be between $5,000 and $10,000, Davies said.
All of which begs the question: Why try to form a fire district if opposition is strong at the board level?
Mitchell Rural Fire Association President Randy Brakke said it was a matter of the democratic process at work. He and fire association secretary Floyd Morrison were simply outvoted.
“The fire association board has six townships and there were four members who wanted to bring it to a vote,” he said. “That’s the reason we’ll be voting on Tuesday.”
Brakke believes there’s little support for a fire protection district in his township of Plano in Hanson County. “The residents out here are definitely not in favor of it,” he said.
Brakke said he voted against the proposed district because he could not get satisfactory answers about what a new fire district would cost township residents.
“Everyone would like to see more service for their tax dollar, but all we’re going to see is that each individual property owner will pay more for the same service,” he said.
There’s strong sentiment among his township’s residents, said Fire Association secretary Floyd Morrison, who represents Perry Township, that the status quo is working just fine and needs no fixing.
“There’s no advantage to it that I can see. We’re going to have the same fire department and the only thing is we’ll pay more taxes.” Morrison predicts the chance of Perry Township voters passing the fire district is “zero to none.”
Brakke said the Mitchell Rural Fire Association has a contract for fire services with the city of Mitchell that will cost $14,655 in 2011; $15,095, in 2012; and $15,548 in 2013. Those figures were confirmed by Mitchell Chief of Public Safety Lyndon Overweg.
An examination of the figures shows that a fire protection district might cost more, but not a great deal more, if levies are kept close to current funding levels.
A quick check of property tax valuations shows that a tax levy of 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation would generate at least $25,772 (see related sidebar), more than covering the cost of the fire protection contract with the city of Mitchell.
That same levy of 20 cents per $1,000 would cost the owner of a $200,000 home $40 a year for fire protection.
Those who favor the fire district believe Morrison and Brakke’s views are short-sighted.
“They don’t understand that we’re trying to do,” said Dean Strand, who represents Prosper Township on the fire association board.
“If the fire district doesn’t go, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Strand said.
The reorganization of Mitchell Township placed a greater financial burden on other townships in the MFRA and that “About busted us,” Strand said. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Strand said that Prosper and other townships aren’t sitting on the same cash reserves as Perry Township. Prosper’s levies bring in about $20,000 a year, with $8,900 a year going for fire protection, he said. That leaves precious little cash for snow removal and road maintenance.
Strand also believes that too much inaccurate and misleading information is being circulated about the proposed district.
Board member Jerry Buchholz, who represents Beulah Township, said last week that he would be knocking on doors and making calls over the past weekend, seeking support for the new district.
Mitchell Township breaks away
The MRFA owns a tanker truck, a pumper and a new grass rig.
The $54,000 grass rig — a quick-response vehicle for grass fires — was, some might argue, the impetus for re-incorporating Mitchell Township.
Here’s how that happened.
In 2008 the Mitchell Fire Division gave notice to the MRFA that it needed to update its equipment. Mitchell said it would cancel its contract with the MRFA unless the fire association purchased a new grass rig by the end of 2009.
The MFRA agreed, ordered a new truck and assessed members for the new vehicle. Then-unincorporated Mitchell Township was billed about $17,000 for its share of the new truck.
That request was rejected by the Davison County commissioners since only $3,000 had been set aside for rural fire protection. It gave that amount to the fire association and refused to release more funds since the county had no official agreement with the fire association.
That forced the MRFA to take out a loan to cover its own, as well as then-unincorporated Mitchell Township’s share, of the truck’s cost.
When Mitchell Township reincorporated in 2010, it removed itself from the Mitchell Rural Fire Association, and contracted privately with the city of Mitchell for rural fire coverage.
The situation is a perfect illustration, Strand said, why a new fire district, and more cash, are needed.
He and other board members say cash is short for road repairs and other expenses and their townships need the consistent revenues required for adequate fire protection.
Mitchell Township decided to pay more for fire protection when it reincorporated and it also purchased a new grass rig of its own.
Mitchell Township Chairman Mark Schilling said his reorganized township contracted with the city of Mitchell for fire protection equal to the fire response the provided within city limits.
Schilling said many township businesses are situated just outside city limits and it was important to ensure that those companies receive fire prompt fire response.
The initial $142,000 payment negotiated with the city of Mitchell included money for the cost of a new grass fire rig, which will be owned and maintained by the city.
Subsequent yearly payments of $62,000, with subsequent 3 percent increases will pay for the upkeep of equipment and part to expenses for personnel, Schilling said.
How much is too much?
Davies said the maximum amount the proposed fire district may levy is $1 per $1,000 of a property’s assessed valuation for operations, and 50 cents per $1,000 for equipment.
Strand said information has been incorrectly circulated that taxes will go up by the entire $1.50 per $1,000.
He estimates the tax bill will be closer to 30 to 40 cents per $1,000 of valuation, with the lower number more likely.
MRFA Vice President Larry Olson agrees.
“It’s ludicrous to think we’d levy that much,” said Olson, who represents Lisbon Township.
Olson is also on board of the Mount Vernon Fire District, which serves the part of Lisbon Township where he resides. He said he won’t personally benefit from the proposed Mitchell Rural Fire District, but it’s important to him that his township receives adequate fire coverage.
Olson admits that the current MRFA agreement with the city is working OK right now but the cost of fire protection is rising and a rural fire protection district would be better able to meet potentially higher financial demands.
“It’s been working great all these years, I’ll grant that, but fire equipment is becoming more expensive and equipment must meet federal regulations,” he said. “As things now stand, we’re struggling to stay afloat.”
As a legitimate taxing entity a fire district has more rights and powers and would be eligible for federal grants, he said. Currently Olson said, “Mitchell rural fire district is not even registered with the state; we’re not even incorporated.”
Additionally he said, setting the boundaries would give residents piece of mind that their townships would not be absorbed by a future fire districts not of their own choosing.
Also, Olson said, a fire district will more fairly spread the cost of fire protection. Under the current situation some residents who belong to the Mount Vernon Fire District are also paying into the MRFA as part of their regular township dues.
Olson said a new fire district’s board of directors would be composed of residents of the proposed fire district and it isn’t logical that they would tax themselves beyond what’s needed to cover costs.
He believes the initial levy will be closer to 30 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, and not $1.50. That means the owner of a $200,000 home would pay $60 a year for fire protection, Olson said.
The owners of similarly sized homes in neighboring fire protection districts will pay between $103 and $106 a year.
“That’s not a lot of money to ensure adequate fire protection and to keep our equipment up to date,” he said.
The levies being charged by neighboring fire districts in Davison County would support Olson’s point of view.
Records supplied by Davison County Auditor’s Office show that the fire district levies are 52 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation for the Mount Vernon Rural Fire District; and 53 cents per $1,000 for the Ethan Rural Fire District. Hanson County Auditor Lesa Trabing said the Alexandria Fire District’s levy is 40½ cents per $1,000.
Farmers argue that they will pay the lion’s share of taxes on the new district, Olson said.
“But it’s not just small property owners who cause fires,” he said. “There are plenty of farmers have fires too. Each year we have combine fires and grass fires that must be put out.”
MRFA board member Brian Iburg, who lives in Hanson Township, preferred at first not to comment on the election, but when pressed, he said he believes it will be a good thing.
His township, which will have only nine sections in the fire protection district boundaries will be the smallest, area-wise, in the proposed district and it needs the funding, he said.
Under the current tax freeze, townships can’t raise levies fast enough to cover rising expenses, Iburg said.