Nearly a year ago the College Township Fire Department and Monroe Township split. Now, the fire department, the College Township and the Village of Gambier are considering future arrangements that can guarantee sufficient funding for this vital service.
The end of the College Township Fire Department’s contract with Monroe eliminated approximately $200,000 in fire and emergency medical services (EMS) funding. With the Township Board of Trustees and the Village working together to think about the future, a 21st-century joint fire district or a merger between the Village and the Township are still an indeterminate length of time, and at least one ballot initiative, away.
Funding for the fire department is complicated. Traditionally, levies on property taxes fund township fire departments, but the biggest property owner in the Township is Kenyon College, which, as a not-for-profit, is exempt from such taxes. In lieu of taxes, the College contributes a voluntary payment to help support the department. The department is additionally funded by taxes on Gambier homeowners and insurance reimbursements.
Part of the fire department’s current problems come from being under the Township’s jurisdiction. A township is a governing unit subordinate to the county but distinct from corporations like Gambier. Today, the division often complicates matters more than it simplifies them.
“Townships are like a historical anachronism … they’re not super meaningful divisions of government; they kind of don’t fit in,” Mayor Kachen Kimmell said. Townships have historically provided a way for rural citizens to help one another, but the overlap between Township and Village residents has grown significantly. As of the 2010 census, 2,731 people lived in the College Township, but only 340 of these people lived outside of Gambier.
Earlier this fall, nearly a year after the split with Monroe, Kimmell said that Township trustees approached her and Mark Kohlman, Kenyon’s chief business officer, and proposed the idea of a joint fire district. The concept of a joint fire district was created by the Ohio State Legislature to help address issues of financing fire departments. Ohio’s Revised Code Chapter 505.371 allows for municipalities, whether they are townships or corporations, to pass joint resolutions forming a new fire department.
Kimmell envisioned the joint district having a governing board that contains at least one elected representative from the Township and the Village, as well as a representative from Kenyon.
“Theoretically, when this board comes together, they’re going to come to an agreement that involves everyone paying more,” Kimmell said.
President Sean Decatur noted the strain the department has been under since the end of last year. He said he wanted to see if a joint fire district was the right model.
“We’re interested in seeing a financially sustainable fire department, but also a fire department that meets the safety needs of the campus,” he said. He added that he wants the role of the student volunteers to remain an integral part of the fire department
Kimmell also stressed the importance of student volunteers, saying the influx of committed volunteers makes the Township’s fire department stronger than others.
Kimmell also mentioned the possibility of a merger between the Village of Gambier and the College Township. This would extend the Village borders to the current Township borders and absorb the several hundred Township citizens who currently live outside the Village limits. Kimmell said that the idea of the merger began to pick up steam over the summer with the creation of the Village of Gambier Strategic Plan.
While the idea is gaining traction, the concrete details are still in their early stages.
“This is a very complicated thing to consider. It’s kind of good that the new administration is going to be at the beginning of thinking about it,” Kimmell said. She said that Mayor-elect Leeman Kessler ’04, as well as the three new Village Council members (a third seat will open once Kessler assumes his mayor duties), will shape the conversation around a possible Village-Township merger.
The idea of a merger excites Kimmell because it represents planning for governance in the 21st century, something the current municipal structures were not necessarily designed to do, as highlighted by the fire department’s woes. She said that possible changes could include the construction of a new fire station, which would create new resources for the fire department and free up space for retail in the village center.
For now, with any potential merger being several meetings, hearings and ballot initiatives away, the future of the fire department is still up for debate.