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Mitchell Rural Fire District plan panned at first public hearing

Chris Nebelsick speaks in favor of the Mitchell Rural Fire District's annexation of five townships to help acquire fire protection services from the city of Mitchell. (Evan Hendershot / Republic)

A proposal to bring five townships into the Mitchell Rural Fire District may have flamed out Thursday night.

While the Davison and Hanson county commissioners approved resolutions to revise proposed annexations to bring areas of both counties into the proposed fire district, Thursday night's comments from citizens indicated public petitions to opt out of the district are likely.

And after several statements of opposition, Mitchell Township Board Chairman Chad Van Laecken said his township will petition against the proposal. The Davison County Commission then unanimously decided not to annex Mitchell Township into the district.

Prior to the vote, questions were flung around Thursday in the large auditorium of the Davison County Fairgrounds, but arguably the most critical questions in the minds of many attendees about the proposed annexations into the Mitchell Rural Fire District remain unknown.

At a joint meeting of the Davison and Hanson county commissions for the first public hearing to discuss the annexations of portions of five townships into the rural fire district, which will take effect in 2018, the district's attorney couldn't say how much residents would have to pay to be part of the district.

"There's been discussions, but there hasn't been any solid numbers yet," said attorney Jim Davies.

And, Davies said, that's because the district currently made up of Beulah, Lisbon and Prosper townships hasn't finalized its boundaries yet.

The hearing was the product of the district's intent to annex Badger, Perry, Mitchell, Hanson and Plano townships in preparation for contract negotiations with the Mitchell Fire Division. Many of the properties which could be annexed, if the boundaries are approved by both county commissions, can be covered by rural district, but Mitchell Rural Fire District representative Chris Nebelsick assured more than 50 people in attendance that the district isn't making light of the service provided by rural fire departments.

"We just want to make it clear that we are in no way talking negative about volunteer fire departments," Nebelsick said.

With Nebelsick's statement out of the way, comments careened throughout the high-ceilinged Fairgrounds auditorium about whether it's fair for residents of the five townships proposed for annexation to pay a mill levy to cover costs for the perceived few who support the plan. And while Mitchell Rural Fire District Chair Leon Baier said the organization has sat down with the city to discuss future contract negotiations to have the full-time department service the rural areas, he said they haven't settled on any formal numbers at this point.

Baier rattled off the mill levy for per $1,000 of property valuation other departments charge, including 25.5 cents per $1,000 for Alexandria and 23.75 cents per $1,000 for Emery. But the repeating questions about the future levy couldn't be answered.

"They would not commit to any dollar amount because they're not sure what their boundaries are yet," Baier said about a recent meeting he had with Mitchell Mayor Jerry Toomey, Chief of Public Safety Lyndon Overweg and City Attorney Justin Johnson.

Among the several attendees at the Fairgrounds who did not approve of the plan, some wondered if the district was hoping for more property to help in acquiring a better contract with the city.

And joining those in opposition was the Letcher Fire Department. Fire Chief Rod Clarambeau was joined by other volunteer firefighters in questioning the district's plan.

"We don't propose taking half our townships," Clarambeau said.

The public now has an option to petition for a public vote, Davison County Commission Chair Brenda Bode said.

The commissioners voted to add a small portion of Perry Township into the plan and remove sections 22 through 27 in Badger Township and sections 19 through 24 and section 30 of Perry Township from the plan. There were no changes to Hanson and Plano townships.