Liberty Twp. puts 3.5-mill safety levy on ballot

Fast-growing Liberty Twp. will ask its taxpayers in November to pay more for fire and emergency services.

Trustees for 18 months debated the amount and length of the ballot issue, but they agreed Tuesday night to seek a 3.5-mill continuous levy.

If voters agree, the owner of a $100,000 home would pay $122 more annually — or a total of $300 when two existing levies are included.

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Trustee Tom Farrell favored a continuous levy instead of a five-year issue that Trustee Board President Christine Matacic had supported initially.

“The market is really good now, we don’t know what it’s going to be like in five years. If we have another recession, we could be having to lay people off and do all kinds of things, and not providing the safety to our residents that we can if we do a continuous,” Farrell said. “It’s risky, and it’s a risk I just don’t feel comfortable taking.”

The trustees were poised to put a levy on last November’s ballot but pulled back because they felt they needed to dig deeper into the numbers. They also wanted to get more valuation from new growth on the books so their taxpayers could benefit from more people paying the bill.

With tax levies, a local government collects the amount initially approved no matter what growth happens, a fact the trustees lament.

“Nobody understands we could double in size, and we have no more money to operate our fire department,” Farrell said. “Almost everybody is appalled by that. The system is broken.”

The township has doubled in size to 40,000 over the past two decades.

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The township’s finance committee recommended a 3.75-mill levy, but trustees Tuesday said that was too much.

The more expensive levy would leave the township with a projected pot of money at the end of five years totalling almost $4 million as opposed $2.4 million with the 3.5-mill levy. Matacic said she had a number of reasons she didn’t want to stockpile cash reserves, including the message it could send to a state conciliator if their fire union talks ever ended in a dispute.

“If I have too much money in a pot, there is a lot of control I lose when it has to go to arbitration, if it ever comes to that,” she said. “I want to be fair, but at the same time I don’t want to tip the scales one way or the other where it’s going to cost this community a lot more in the long run.”

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The trustees ultimately were unanimous in their support for a continuous levy.

After the vote, Matacic told the Journal-News her colleagues convinced her they need the security of a continuous levy.

The last levy was supposed to keep up with expenses for five years and did so for seven years, officials said.

If the township did nothing at all now and continued to rely on the two existing levies — both are continuous — Finance Director Michelle Greis said they will be in the red to the tune of $3 million by the end of 2019.

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Farrell said it would be “irresponsible” to go for a 5-year levy and would appear to their residents they are not very good financial planners. He said they fully expect the new levy, if passed, will fund the department for another seven years.

“To keep going back to the well and constantly asking for money is what the residents are going to see,” Farrell said. “They are not going to see the due diligence, the 18 months of due diligence we did on this levy… ”

BrendaWehmer, who is a finance committee member, supported a 3.75-mill request instead of the 3.5-mill levy.

“There is so little difference, now we know we have to pass a levy, bottom line it’s $18 on a $100,000 home,” she said. “How many of us would not pay that?”

Trustee Steve Schramm said the 3.5-mill amount is plenty.

“I like the gauntlet being thrown down, the challenge being thrown down, for our fire department and our staff to work with that number, and stretch it to seven years,” he said.

Intense growth and the opitate epidemic also makes budgeting hard.

“A lot is our run volume, we’re seeing increases but we’re not seeing drastic,” Fire Chief Paul Stumpf said. “We know they’re coming, we’re just waiting for the other shoe to fall. We can somewhat predict, but not knowing what the demand on services is going to be. You know a year ago, who was talking about the opiate crisis?”

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Stumpf was also a contributor to the delayed levy, after he tendered his resignation last September. Farrell was determined to wait until they have a new chief in place, so that person has input into the levy request. He changed his mind a couple months back after receiving dire predictions that pushing the levy into 2018 would compound deficits.

Matacic changed her mind twice on the timing, wanting to capture more growth, especially from the posh Carriage Hill subdivision. She also fell in line when deficit predictions were revealed. Schramm from the beginning said the levy ask was urgent.

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