For months, Firefighters and EMS Fund has been involved in supporting one fire district in Licking County Ohio, the Refugee Canyon Fire District. This district has been embattled for years by a movement to reduce tax bills for wealthier households in the area by a few hundred dollars through cutting emergency response capabilities. The residents propagating this movement have indicated they wish to be served by the fire department of a coincidentally well-off, nearby town called Granville- despite the Refugee Canyon Fire District providing better response times thereby delivering higher quality, more locally controlled care. False claims made through advertisements about wasteful spending have gone unchecked by state officials- and have swayed voters in more than one election.
As of January 1 2022, fire and EMS personnel on duty each day have been reduced from eight to four, and the most recently opened station, aimed at further reducing response times, has been closed. Fire Chief Clifford Mason lends his perspective below.
If you have spent any time in or around the fire service, you likely have heard the expression, “200 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress”. Growing up in the fire service, I heard that expressed several times by those who had been in the business for years. This well-known expression refers to the idea that no matter how things change, we still do things pretty much the same way…”put the wet stuff on the red stuff.”
The fire service in America as we know it today began officially in 1736 by none other than Benjamin Franklin. He organized the first volunteer fire company in Philadelphia. Two-hundred years ago, when a property owner paid in advance for fire insurance, the insurance company often-times marked the insured’s home with a marker to let the responders know they would be paid for the service, making firefighting services a luxury for those that could afford it. We don’t see many fire marks today. In fact, the way the fire service is funded varies from community to community: most metropolitan departments rely on revenue from income tax, most county operated agencies rely on revenue from the county (through various taxes), and smaller organizations often depend on local tax levies to fund their operations.
Our community of Union Township fits into the last category. This community has always supported fire and EMS issues on the ballot long before I began my fire service career in 1980. The fire chief typically prepares a budget outlining the costs associated with operating the department. Consideration is given to include such things as fuel costs, motor vehicle purchases, repairs to equipment, firefighting clothing, utilities to light, cool and heat the fire stations, staffing costs with respect to salaries, worker’s compensation, mandated pension benefits, and the like. This information is presented to the elected officials who then decide, based on tax valuation, how many mills would be needed to meet the needs of the budget. Most elected officials consider the potential impact of a new levy with the current millage being paid by the taxpayers for other services when deciding whether to place an issue on the ballot.
What most elected or appointed officials – including the fire chief – don’t have time for is focusing on negative campaigning against necessary funding that has somehow become commonplace. A fire chief’s time is much better utilized trying to ensure adequately trained staff is in place to respond to emergencies, fire and EMS equipment is in proper working order, and considerations of efficiently located stations are paramount for effective fire and EMS delivery; and are only a few paltry examples of the kinds of things a fire chief should focus their attention on.
Hebron Village and Union Township elected officials met sporadically over a forty-year period to discuss the potential for forming a fire district. Three separate comprehensive studies were conducted over the previous 20 years. Each study recommended a fire station and staffing be located in a more central area of the township to decrease response times. In 2019, a majority of the elected officials signed a resolution form Refugee-Canyon Joint Fire District with service to begin in February 2020. All fire/EMS revenues collected between the village and township would be distributed to the fire district to provide service to the entire township.
The fire district board agreed to put a levy on the ballot in November 2020. The levy failed. The township placed a replacement levy on the ballot in May 2020; it failed. They returned to the voters in November 2021 with the same replacement levy (aka NO increase in tax rate), and it too failed. Three back-to-back levy defeats! This is unheard of in Union Township.
However, on all three attempts to secure funding we were opposed by a group of well-funded citizens, who ironically called themselves ‘Union Township For Public Safety’…yet, they printed and distributed mailers with non-truthful statements. They alleged our organization provided diminished fire and rescue protection, even after our agency opened a second fire station more centrally located in the township to reduce response time by several minutes and was staffed with three well-trained staff members (at least one paramedic 24/7/365) without ANY increase in their taxes. This opposition group also alleged the fire district was misspending money on a fire station (the fire station is a 3,700 sq. foot home converted into a fire station). The monies used to purchase this station were from reserve revenue the township had collected over many years that could only be spent on fire/EMS related services. No additional cost to the taxpayer whatsoever.
I understand that not everyone supports more taxes, or even the fire service. What puzzles me, is how a group of predominantly upper-middle class individuals (including fire service professionals) call themselves “for public safety”, yet campaign against decreasing response times and oppose increased staffing strategically located to better serve them at no additional cost. They claim they support the firefighters, yet speak out against providing the funding to pay for the firefighters (based on recent local surveys, our staff is some of the lowest paid career firefighters in central Ohio).
And as Victor Frankl said in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man, but one thing, the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude to any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way”. I will never give up on this community or the firefighters that so selflessly serve this community. We will continue to serve the best we can as long as we have the funding to do so.
Clifford Mason, Fire Chief
Refugee Canyon Fire District
Licking County, OH