Columbus Township firefighters still on chopping block

Columbus Township’s full-time paid firefighters are still on the chopping block, despite a show of public support last night.

About 80 people turned out to a township budget hearing, with most who spoke standing up for the six full-time firefighters the township has on staff. But the two advisory board members who want to replace the full-time staff with part-timers seemed unmoved.

Mike Shireman, the board president, and board member Jimmy Green were on opposing sides against Township Trustee Ben Jackson who wants to keep the full-time staff. The board members presented plans to replace the full-time staff with four or six part-time firefighters paid $15 an hour, as a way to save taxpayers money.

Shireman explains his plan:

09-07 Mike Shireman-1

But they had no numbers on how much that would save taxpayers or what next year’s tax rate would look like under those changes.

On the other hand, Jackson presented a detailed plan to cut the firefighting tax rate in half next year between budget cuts, concessions from firefighters and the paying off of a fire loan.

There was friction between Jackson, Shireman and Green during the meeting, with Jackson saying that he had offered, asked, begged and cajoled Green to come to the office to discuss his budget proposal and the associated numbers. But so far, Green has not done so, Jackson said.

09-07 Ben Jackson-1

Green and Shireman said that they did not have access to the equipment and formulas that Jackson has to calculate the budget and tax rates. Further, they said it wasn’t their job to prepare the budget numbers, but to make decisions on the budget that Jackson presented to them.

A third advisory board member, Dustin Renner, has been recently appointed and did not get involved in last night’s discussion.

Audience members who spoke were largely in favor of the fire department’s paid staff. Positive comments about the fire department drew loud applause. Of particular concern to audience members was the speed that the paid staff could respond, compared to the delays in getting volunteers or part-timers to the scene. Many also took exception to board members’ concerns on why the department was responding to so many medical calls.

Jackson and firefighters defended the medic runs, saying that many times the firefighters get to the scene before a Columbus Regional Hospital ambulance and provide vital lifesaving efforts.

Some of the comments from the audience were emotional, such as Columbus-resident Jan Brinkman explaining that even a delay of a few more minutes would have meant her death in a medical crisis earlier in the summer. Former State  Trooper Tami Watson said that if it is your child drowning, or your loved one having a heart attack, no one cares what uniform a rescue worker is wearing, just how quickly they get there.

After more than an hour of comments opposing the board’s direction, an audience member asked Green and Shireman if the public comments they had heard would change their minds and Shireman said that those at the meeting were only a small number of the taxpayers he answers to.

Jackson said that he didn’t believe the board’s desire to gut the full-time staff has anything to do with helping taxpayers and is more about a vendetta against the fire department and the decision back in 2008 to add paid firefighters to the mix.

The Columbus Township Fire and Rescue Department serves the areas of the township in the donut shape outside the city of Columbus.

A final decision will be made in two weeks. A meeting is set for 6 p.m., Sept. 20 in the Family Arts Building at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds.