Auburn area seeks tax for firefighters, responders

Auburn area seeks tax for firefighters, responders

Reprinted with permission of Jon Becker, Published 1:39 am EDT, Thursday, July 12, 2018 for the Midland Daily News.

The Auburn-Williams Township Fire Department has a history dating all the way back to 1949 of protecting the community as an all-volunteer-based organization. It is Bay County's last remaining such fire department.

Now Auburn and Williams Township leaders are going to voters during the Aug. 7 primary election to seek a fire protection personnel expense millage because the communities have outgrown the current 35-member volunteer staff that can't keep pace with the increasing number of medical and fire calls they are required to respond to.

"We have a long tradition of volunteerism here that we're proud of," said John Martinski, Auburn-Williams Township fire chief. "The reality, though, is that the city and township have outgrown a volunteer fire department. We're missing calls. As a fire service, we can't be missing calls. For nearly 70 years we've never asked the community for anything. Now we're asking for help so we can help them."

Williams Township Supervisor Paul Wasek said the department missed 47 calls in 2017. In all, the department is receiving more than 600 medical and fire calls a year, compared to the maybe 50 calls a year it received during the early 1950s. An aging population is certainly a factor in the growing number of calls. Last year, 397 calls were medical-related, officials noted.

"We hate missed calls," he said. "People are busy, they're working. We didn't have the daytime concerns a few years back that we do now. Between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. is when we receive a good share of our calls." According to Martinski, seeking millage funding is the department's only option.

"Most of my firefighters don't work in this area and employers seem more reluctant to let volunteers respond to calls these days," Martinski said. "It's unheard of these days to operate strictly an all-volunteer department. We brought in a consultant, who told us this isn't a problem limited to Auburn. It's a nationwide problem.

There will be two ballot questions -- one for the City of Auburn seeking 2 mills and one for Williams Township seeking 1 mill. The city, said Martinski, is seeking a larger millage because it's geographic area covers just over one square mile and won't generate nearly the property tax revenue of the township with its nearly 35 square miles of total taxable value. The municipalities are seeking a 6-year millage.

The township's one mill levy would generate about $182,000 per year, Wasek said. The money, officials said, will be used solely for personnel expenses. If the millage passes, the plan is to add two certified medical first responder/firefirefighter paid part-time positions to cover daytime hours. The other firefighters would receive a stipend when they respond to a call.

The millage is necessary to provide the neighboring communities the professional services they expect and need, Martinski said.

"We didn't want to make the massive leap from going from a volunteer department to a full-time staff," Martinski, who has been fire chief since 2011, said. "We think the voters will be more receptive to this model."

He added: "Our current daytime response is, on average, about 11 minutes. A millage will allow us to have the staff at the station during the day and would cut it down to a four-minute average."

Martinski assures residents that quality will not suffer with part-timers.

"They'll be true, certified responders/firefighters," he said. "We don't want people to think otherwise just because they are part-time." If the millage passes, the cost would be reflected on homeowners' 2019 property tax bills. One mill will levy $1 of tax per every $1,000 of taxable value. Both Wasek and Martinski are confident voters will support the millage request.

"We've got everything moving in the right direction," Wasek said. "I don't think getting support from the community is going to be an issue."

"We've done a good job of staying engaged with our community in a number of ways," Martinski said. "I think it'll go over pretty well. We've been providing a quality service since 1949 and, until now, have not asked for any kind of help."