BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — The failure of a 5.6-mill fire/EMS levy has prompted Maumee leaders to ask two questions: Why? And what’s next?
Just 1,462 voters – slightly less than 10 percent of Maumee’s 10,333 registered voters – weighed in on the levy. The goal was to raise $2.9 million so the Maumee Fire Division could transition to a completely staffed, full-time department. The levy failed by 48 votes.
One resident who asked to remain anonymous summed up what she believes is the reason voters turned it down, and it has nothing to do with residents’ support of fire and EMS.
“With the traffic on the trail and Conant Street and then the water issue, we’ve had it,” she said. “I’ve heard that from many of my neighbors. The city can figure it out without asking us for more money.”
Mayor Rich Carr said he believes that the same landlords who are opposed to an inspection ordinance are opposed to a property tax increase because it would impact their wallets.
“Most of those in opposition to both the ordinance and the tax levy do not reside in Maumee, but that opposition to the levy had a significant impact,” Carr said.
He also believes that Maumee residents don’t understand that the money spent on improvement projects uptown and along the Anthony Wayne Trail has no impact on the General Fund and cannot be spent for operational expenses, which include fire and EMS services.
Barbara Knisely, a Maumee resident who retired after 30 years in municipal government, believes that once the uptown construction is finished, residents will forget the inconvenience and traffic and instead enjoy the beautiful uptown district and a walking path and trees along the trail. Knisely said she also believes that many Maumee residents don’t understand that Lucas County is pulling funding once provided for advanced life support (ALS) services in Maumee.
“Between now and November, hopefully, there will be more publicity and information so that property owners realize what they’ll be losing,” she said.
It was the news that the county plans to slash and likely eliminate ALS funding that was the tipping point for Maumee leaders, and the reason why council voted to put the levy on the ballot in May instead of waiting until November. The county currently pays $804,000 a year to Maumee and nine other fire departments that operate Life Squad units, even though the cost is $1.6 million a year. Maumee still needs to provide ALS services, even if that funding ceases.
“The math is simple. Maumee receives just 4 percent of a Maumee resident’s total annual county property tax payment, and those funds are divided up for all services, including but not limited to public works, refuse collection and public safety services,” said city administrator Dr. Patrick Burtch. “Currently, it costs city taxpayers $3.6 million a year to operate the fire/EMS services, including nearly $3.1 million for personnel costs alone. On top of that, we’re incurring $200,000 to $300,000 in overtime each year. We have some very dedicated men and women, and that’s a real drain on them.”
Maumee is one of the few cities of its size to still utilize the paid-on-call/volunteer model to staff its fire/EMS services. Fifteen paramedics staff the station 24 hours a day and are joined by paid-on-call fire personnel as needed. Because of changing family and work dynamics and increased training demands, the availability of these paid-on-call firefighters has diminished over the years. Fire Chief Brandon Loboschefski and the two deputy chiefs are filling in on calls seven days a week, and that’s hard on their families, Burtch said.
“We want to have five to six people on around the clock,” said Burtch. “The other day, we had 18 calls in one day. We can’t go to a call with one unit.”
Calls for service have increased at least 15 percent over the last three years, with EMS incidents accounting for at least 75 percent of those calls. In 2022, Maumee responded to 2,561 incidents. For a city of over 13,000, this has been done without a fire levy, which is unusual for a department of its size.
“Of course, we’re disappointed with the outcome of the levy,” Loboschefski said. “We know we have to step back and re-evaluate.”
Because the fire department is already short-staffed, the city won’t be letting go of fire/EMS personnel. Instead, Burtch and others who are paid from the General Fund are working significant additional time to delay hiring several other unfilled necessary positions.
Burtch, who has a background in building and construction, has taken over zoning inspections that previously were handled by zoning manager Andy Glenn, who recently resigned. Other staff members are doubling their duties to make ends meet.
“This is just a temporary measure. We can’t have two or three staff members picking up $400,000 in lost labor permanently,” Burtch said. “We’re muddling through until we can figure out a fix.”
“I can understand how some residents might feel there are more operational funds at the city’s disposal than there actually are, but there is no other source of revenue other than cutting other services that residents also enjoy and expect. There is no money other than what taxpayers provide,” Burtch added.
Carr acknowledges that no one wants to increase taxes, but a levy is a last-ditch effort. The property tax funds would be earmarked and could only be used for fire/EMS.
Burtch noted that city council carefully considered all funding options, including income tax, but opted for a property tax for two reasons: Payment is more closely related to those who predominately receive EMS service, and it is a far more stable source of revenue support on which these lifesaving services can rely.
“Income tax is heavily reliant on people who travel to work here every day, but don’t live here and is far more susceptible to fluctuations in the economy,” he said.
A property tax also has added benefits in terms of homestead and disability exemptions for those who qualify.
“Our residents’ taxes and fees paid to the city are less than those paid to most of our neighboring communities. While no one wants to pay more taxes, paying taxes restricted in use to fire and EMS is necessary,” Carr said. “Over the past six years, we have attempted many ways to address the problem. They have not worked. The only solution is to have paid staffing 24/7.”
Now retired from his career as an attorney, Carr is finishing his third and final term as mayor. He wants to solve the problem before he leaves.
“I will ask council to again place the tax levy on the ballot knowing it will not be popular with many but also knowing it’s necessary to protect our residents. We risk losing highly experienced first responders who worry if their jobs will be secure,” Carr said. “As a community, I believe we have a responsibility to adequately fund our fire/EMS division and I believe better explaining the necessity will result in passage in November. Tax rates paid to the city by our residents have not increased in 55 years, so there is an absolute necessity now or it would not be on the ballot.”