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Community News

Norton fire levy back on ballot

10/11/2012 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

NORTON — It’s been nearly a year that the Norton Fire Department has been unable to staff its station 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Voters here did not pass two issues in the November 2011 General Election that would have provided additional funding for the department. The city went back to voters in the March Primary Election, but its request for a single 4.6-mill, four-year levy was defeated by 52 percent of voters.

Now the city once again is asking residents to support the same levy request from March, which is Issue No. 27 on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot. As in March, if the issue passes, the city’s four current fire and emergency medical services (EMS) levies will be no longer on the books, as Norton City Council already passed legislation to eliminate those levies.

The new levy would generate $1,128,754, Fire Chief Mike Schultz said, and cost the owner of $100,000 in property $141 a year, which is $77 more than is paid now per year.

When the two levies didn’t pass last November, Norton City Council voted to reduce the manned hours at the city’s fire station effective Jan. 1 and lay off nine firefighters. The cuts meant the station would have no personnel for fire and EMS calls from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. However, Norton firefighters continued to cover the station until the March election. When the March levy was defeated, the firefighters ceased the evening coverage, according to city officials.

Schultz said since the station has been unmanned at night, the city has not been able to respond to more than 100 calls for service.

“We are giving a lot of our work away,” he said.

Schultz said when a resident calls for help during the unmanned hours, dispatchers send calls to a private ambulance service or a neighboring fire department.

Also, when there are multiple calls at one time when the station is manned, staff reductions have meant that those additional calls often must be directed to neighboring departments or private companies.

“Some days we called the private companies and they are available and sometimes they are out, so we have to make two or three phone calls,” Schultz said. “At that point, you’re really delaying care to someone in need. Our staffing cuts are still in place, and we’re doing the best we can with what we have.”

Schultz said residents who need an ambulance could be paying more out of pocket for the service if a private company is needed.

“If you are a resident, we bill you,” Schultz said. “If your insurance sends us a check for $100, that’s what we take. If we have to call a private ambulance, they are going to want to collect their money. The private ambulance companies are a business. Anything your insurance does not cover, you are responsible for.”

The chief said he understands that many residents do not want to pay more for anything.

“I don’t want to ask people for more of their money,” he said. “But the fire department does not work out of the General Fund. We work off of levies, and they have been in place since 1995. Homes were devalued, so that dropped the revenue we have coming in. We are trying to run our department at 2012 costs with fuel and supplies on a budget from 1995.”

Schultz said the levy is renewable in four years, so if it passes voters have a chance to evaluate how the department has used its funds when it goes back onto the ballot.

Should the levy pass, Schultz said the station would be able to return to 24-hour staffing at the first of the year. Schultz said he would like to bring some of the laid-off staffers back. Currently the station is staffed with three firefighter/medics per shift, and he would like to see that increase to six.

“There’s too much work to do” at a fire with three firefighters, he said. “It’s too unsafe.”

Should the levy not pass once again, Schultz said the city would have to look at further staff cuts, with the possibility that the station would be staffed from only 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., as it was in the 1990s.

“By October 2013, we will not be able to sustain even the minimal operation we are running now,” he said. “Probably into 2014, the money will be drastically, drastically reduced to the point where I don’t know how we will function.”

Schultz said some have asked why the station can’t go back to using volunteers, but he said that is something that has become harder and harder to do.

“The volunteer fire department days are over,” he said. “I’ve talked to fire chiefs all over the state of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, and they are doing exactly what we are doing. You can’t get volunteers. People just don’t have the time to volunteer. The training is expensive. You bring someone in off the street with no training, and they can’t function. They have to have a minimum of 120 hours of fire training.”

Schultz said the levy campaign will consist of some mailers and signs. Also, he said he is willing to talk to residents or local groups about the levy.

“We are just trying to get the proper information out to everyone,” he said. “If somebody has a question, or if they don’t understand something, call me.”

Schultz can be reached at 330-825-3086.

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