The reason the city of Hillsboro has a contract with the Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District instead of belonging to the district as a member like everyone else is because of a law that said fire and ambulance districts could have no more than nine members. That quota was filled by the time Hillsboro City Council voted in 2013 to disband Hillsboro Fire & Rescue in favor of coverage by Paint Creek.
Those entities that have joined the district as members – the village of Greenfield, along with the Highland County townships of Madison, Paint, Liberty, New Market, Washington and Jackson, and the Ross County townships of Buckskin and Paint – have all done so under a scenario that results in an additional 5.5 mill property tax. That’s the price of admission to become a member of the district. Hillsboro’s contract of $570,000 or so a year with Paint Creek was calculated based on the amount that would be collected if the property tax was imposed on the city.
The Paint Creek board is made up of a representative of Greenfield village council and a trustee from each of the eight townships that belong to the district. Since 2014, Hillsboro City Council has always had a non-voting member on the board, first Lee Koogler, currently Dick Donley. Hillsboro’s representative on the board can participate in discussions and offer opinions, but cannot vote.
With little to no fanfare, though, the law that limited the members of a fire and ambulance district in Ohio changed in December. There are now no limits, meaning Hillsboro is eligible to join.
Hillsboro’s current contract with Paint Creek runs through December of this year. Both Paint Creek and Hillsboro city officials by and large agree that they would prefer that Hillsboro be a full-fledged voting member of the district when the current contract expires.
Here’s where the fun begins. If Hillsboro City Council passes a resolution to join the district (and the Paint Creek board accepts, which has to happen, too), the result will be that city property owners will pay the additional 5.5 mill property tax just like all other entities that join the district.
And under the law specifically related to fire and ambulance districts, all it takes is a resolution by city council. A ballot issue is not required, and a citizen referendum to repeal the tax is not permitted. Back in 2013, I interviewed an attorney with the office of general counsel for the state tax department for a story on Paint Creek, and she verified all that.
County auditor Bill Fawley said in the past that the millage actually collected is closer to 5.2 mills rather than 5.5 because of a somewhat complicated mathematical formula (well, to be honest, all mathematical formulas are pretty complicated to me), but the bottom line results in an extra property tax of about $173 a year for every $100,000 of valuation.
In years past, there were some on council who suggested that even though council is charged with deciding whether to join or not, they would still put the matter on the ballot since it will raise property taxes. Sounds fair, right? Let the people decide (which still is not really fair since non-property owners get to vote on it, too). But a ballot issue to raise property taxes by 5.5 mills in Hillsboro would almost certainly go down to defeat, especially because some would argue, hey, we’ll still have fire and EMS coverage by doing more contracts using existing city general fund money, as we’ve been doing all along.
So rather than waste everyone’s time, just have the same courage that was exhibited by trustees in the townships who voted to join over the last four or five years and thereby imposed the tax on their property owners and took the heat for it. Or, just vote to do more contracts. Either way, city council should not abdicate the responsibility to make the decision.
The good news is, the city has 10 more months to figure out which way to go. But if city council does end up voting to join the district under the traditional arrangement as everyone else who is covered by Paint Creek, it would mean the city of Hillsboro will find itself with an extra unencumbered $570,000 a year or so in its General Fund.
Unless, of course, you buy into the argument that was made frequently back in 2013, especially by Hillsboro firefighters, that a four-tenths of one percent income tax that was passed back in 1978 was specifically for fire coverage, and if it’s not being used for fire coverage anymore, it should be rolled back.
I addressed this subject at length in a 2013 column, where I noted that back in 1978, Hillsboro voters did indeed pass, by a vote of 564-451, a tax increase of four-tenths of one percent. The ballot language said the tax hike was for “the support of the life squad and other municipal purposes for the City of Hillsboro.” But the 1978 tax was repealed and replaced by another narrowly-approved tax increase in 1986, which is the last time the city income tax was hiked.
According to the ballot language, the new 1986 tax hike of one-half of one percent that repealed and replaced the 1978 tax was “for additional funds for general municipal operations, maintenance, new equipment, extension and enlargement of municipal services and facilities, and capital improvements of the city.” There was no mention of the fire department or the life squad in the ballot language, and looking back at news coverage at the time it is clear that the tax hike was designed to be spent for any and all city needs.
Considering there has not been an income tax hike in Hillsboro in more than 30 years, despite the cost of everything going up, city leaders would have a pretty good argument against rolling back any portion of the city income tax even if the city no longer has to pay for a Paint Creek contract. Instead, the mayor and others will likely make the case that the extra half-million dollars a year will greatly enhance the city’s ability to pave more streets and engage in more all-round infrastructure improvements and blight removal. Either way, this is a decision coming at the city.
Meanwhile, negotiations have been ongoing for quite a while for Paint Creek to purchase the new fire station on North East Street, and an agreement might be reached soon – which opens up a whole new discussion, but that’s fodder for another day.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or by email at [email protected].