Article by:(Steve Sanchez/The Star)
“Township officials on the Westside are fuming over a legislative proposal that would let Indianapolis acquire their fire departments without their consent.
â€œThis is a hostile move, a blatant grab for power,â€ said Andy Harris, Wayne Townshipâ€™s trustee.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Cindy Kirchhofer R-Beech Grove, would require only the approval of the Indianapolis City-County Council and the mayor to merge the fire departments of Decatur, Pike and Wayne townships into the Indianapolis Fire Department.
Five other township departments have merged with IFD since 2007, but they joined voluntarily â€” and local officials voted for it. Decatur, Pike and Wayne have resisted because they insist their services are as good or better than IFDâ€™s.
â€œThere has been no movement in our township by residents or elected officials to consolidate,â€ said Lula Patton, the Pike Township trustee. â€œWe are on budget and deliver a high quality of service. The way this bill is written is unfair. None of us has a say in this.â€
The Indiana House recently approved House Bill 1229 by a 74-20 vote, and it has been assigned to the Senate Local Government Committee. Chairman Sen. Randall Head, R-Logansport, said he is undecided about whether to schedule a hearing. If he does, it would be held in about two weeks.
â€œIâ€™ve been talking to people on both sides of the issue and have a lot to sort out,â€ he said.
A law on the books requires consent of the township trustee and board for any merger. But Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, a sponsor of HB 1229, said he has grown impatient waiting for the townships to merge, which he sees as inevitable.
â€œIâ€™ve been working on this process for a long time, and nothing has worked for these three townships,â€ he said. â€œI think it is time we let the mayor and council make a local decision for something that will save taxpayers money.â€
Kirchhofer said the time to bring the other townships in for consolidation is long overdue. She said mergers have cut costs and improved efficiency.
â€œWe are the only incorporated city in Indiana that still has township fire departments.â€
A fiscal analysis by the Legislative Services Agency found that a merger â€œcould provide costs savings for the county, townships and fire protection territoriesâ€ but could not say how big a savings. The agency found that fire costs over five years increased slower for the merged departments than for the three holdouts â€” 9.8 percent compared with 18.9 percent. The merged department also cut payroll by 2.7 percent.
But City-County Council President Maggie Lewis said she doesnâ€™t support the bill because it wouldnâ€™t allow for input from the townships.
â€œIâ€™m not in favor of the state allowing us to circumvent the system, and if this landed on my desk, I wouldnâ€™t be in support of it,â€ said Lewis, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Pike and Wayne townships. â€œI havenâ€™t heard from anyone saying this (consolidation) is something we should tackle again or from people saying this is not working.â€
The last township fire department to consolidate was Lawrence on Jan. 1, 2011. Four others became part of IFD before that. The former chief of Warren Township fire, Brian Sanford, is now IFD chief, and one-time Perry Township Trustee Gary Coons is the Indianapolis chief of Homeland Security.
Firefighters Local 416 supports continued mergers, even though they have eliminated 112 jobs.
â€œWe have backed mergers since they were first discussed under Mayor Bart Peterson in 2004,â€ said union President Mike Reeves. â€œWe think having one incident command center, one dispatch center is more efficient and effective.â€
Harris, the Wayne Township trustee, said consolidation is the opposite of what residents need now.
â€œCan we really be talking about cutting people from public safety in this environment?â€ he asked. â€œAll we hear about is shortages, and they are talking about more cuts.â€
Harris said township residents would suffer a loss of service, especially in fire prevention programs.
â€œWe go into all our schools, into retirement homes. We do much much more for our citizens than a large department like IFD can ever do,â€ he said.
Decatur Township Trustee Steve Rink said it was undemocratic to take an important decision out of the hands of the people and their local government representatives.
â€œThis is not a consolidation they are talking about. It is a takeover.â€
Reeves said individual township firefighters generally support the mergers, but fire administrators and local politicians donâ€™t.
Some township firefighters get raises when they come up to the IFD pay scale, Reeves said, but they most welcome the job security and opportunity for promotion in the much bigger department.
â€œLetâ€™s face it, township governments are being squeezed right now by lawmakers at the state level, and a lot of firefighters are nervous about that,â€ Reeves said.
The Indy Chamber, a local business organization, also supports the bill.
â€œOur position is that fire service in Indianapolis should be under control of the City-County Council and mayor, just as fire service is in every other incorporated city across the state,â€ said Chamber spokeswoman Molly Dueberry.
Mayor Greg Ballard backs the bill, but it was not part of his legislative package, said spokesman Marc Lotter. He said consolidation would still be subject to the democratic process.
â€œIt will take a majority vote of the City-County Council,â€ he said. â€œThis is a chance to improve fire service and save money for the entire city.â€
Call Star reporter John Tuohy at 444-6418. Follow him on Twitter: @john_tuohy.
Township fire departments absorbed by the Indianapolis Fire Department.
Lawrence, January 2011.
Franklin, July 2010.
Perry, August, 2009.
Warren, July 2007.
Washington, January 2007.
Townships with their own fire departments