NEWBURY — With a 5.5-mill levy hitting the Nov. 2 ballot for the township, residents gathered at the fire station late last month for a town hall on just what this ask of taxpayers entails.
The new continuing 5.5-mill levy is estimated to generate about $1.06 million at full collection based on 2020 values, Fire Chief Ken Fagan presented during the Aug. 29 meeting, and will support an approximate 20-year debt obligation for station improvements and expansion, estimated to cost between $3.6 million and $4.2 million, according to preliminary designs, as well as personnel expansion to convert the department to a 24/7, staffed station.
Chief Fagan clarified that this would be the only levy the department is asking of voters for this initiative, dispelling rumors that this levy is only for the building upgrades and that another would follow down the road for personnel.
He explained that the levy is split, wherein 4.5 mills ($870,750 in annual revenue) will support staffing the department with full- and part-time firefighters annually and the remaining 1 mill ($193,500 in annual revenue) will support the station upgrades until the completion of a debt obligation.
In attendance alongside Chief Fagan were Newbury Volunteer Fire Department members including Assistant Chief Doug Zimperman, also the township road superintendent; Lt. Jeremy Sustar; and firefighter Bill Meyers.
The all-volunteer department is seeking to expand to a 24/7, staffed department. This initiative involves a 7,125-square-foot addition on the east side of the fire station and renovation of 5,350 square feet of the existing 11,700-square-foot structure.
Before getting into the details of the project plans, Chief Fagan expressed the department’s need for the project and the levy to support it.
First and foremost, he said, is the increase in call volume.
The initiative to expand started back in 2019, about a year after the department noticed an increase in back-to-back and double calls.
From 2018 to 2020, the department received 630-640 calls annually with “two-hit” calls making up between 60 and 75 of those calls, Chief Fagan explained. In November 2020, the department had as many as 12 calls on the 15th, and on Dec. 1, 2020, the department received 25 calls following a storm.
“Not only are our calls increasing,” the chief said,” but our double-hits, triple-hits, are also increasing.”
The year-to-date calls through July of this year were 367 with 38 double- or triple-hits, he said.
Another major factor for the levy need, he said, is fewer available volunteers.
“[Volunteers] have been dwindling for the last seven years,” Chief Fagan said, noting that the department went from 24 volunteers in 2014 and steadily decreased to 12 as of this year.
Nationwide, volunteer firefighters have declined by about 200,000 since 1983, according to 2017 numbers from the National Fire Protection Association, going from 884,600 volunteers in 1983 to 682,600 in 2017.
With fewer volunteers and an increased volume in calls, this impacts response time, especially since Newbury volunteers are not staffed at the station.
“The biggest thing to take away from having staff is the response time and being able to get [to emergencies] sooner,” he said. “Having staff will help us help you better.”
Currently, the average response time for the Newbury department is 8-10 minutes.
Unless at the station for an event, training or returning from a call, “we’re home, just like you, we’re at our normal jobs, just like you,” Chief Fagan said, later noting that brain death can occur in 6 minutes or less in cardiac arrest incidents or that fires can double in size every minute.
With staffing in house and increasing the number of firefighters, the department looks to cut this time by at least half.
Alongside fewer volunteers over the years, Chief Fagan said volunteer burnout is becoming more prominent as members are stretched thin between work, home and their volunteer firefighter roles. On top of this, he said, training is required alongside recertification every three years.
The change in community dynamics is another factor. As population grows, more staffing is necessary to keep up with the increase in call volume that may result in said increased population, he added.
Specific to the expansion of the station itself, the department considered the health and safety of firefighters, noting the need for decontamination zones, adequate storm shelter space, proper storage of personal protection equipment and more.
By offering paid full- and part-time positions, the department can incentivize employee retention, the chief explained, referencing back to the decline in available volunteers.
The pay for such retention, Chief Fagan said, is estimated to be about $90,000 for full-time firefighters to cover pay, insurance, overtime, taxes, recall pay and Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, or BWC, expenses. For part-time firefighters, the pay is estimated at $50,000 for pay, taxes and BWC expenses.
“In order to attract people and keep them, we want to be in the middle to upper range” in employee compensation, Chief Fagan said, comparing the rates to neighboring Geauga County fire departments.
Currently, the volunteer fire department has a total annual income of about $320,000 from the township, Chief Fagan said. The township has a current 1.6-mill levy in place for the department, which yields approximately $270,900 at full collection. At 98-percent collection, he said, this looks more like $250,000. And the township contracts with the fire department for $70,000.
In addition to this, the department receives between $90,000 and $100,000 for EMS billing through insurance companies.
According to the presented plans, the 7,125-square-foot expansion will include six individual dorms, a training room, a conference room, three changing rooms, a laundry room, a locker room, two bathrooms, a large meeting room, a mechanical room, storage, and nine office spaces for the chief, IT, fire prevention, officer in charge and EMS, among others.
Lt. Sustar, who presented the proposed designs, said the truck bay in the current structure will remain as is.
In the existing structure, 5,350 square feet of the station will undergo renovations to include a kitchen and dining area; a day room; various designated storage for events, EMS supplies and PPE, among others; bathrooms; a study; and a wall knocked out to allow more space for the squad vehicles.
Lt. Sustar said the current placement of the wall behind the squads in the garage doesn’t allow the department to pull their stretchers out and sanitize the vehicles, resulting in this needing to be done outside, often in inclement weather.
“It looks like a lot, it is a lot, but I think it’ll offer a lot to employees,” he said.
Most attendees voiced their support of the levy and the department’s proposed improvement project following the presentations. Others, while still in support of the idea, urged the department to consider back-up plans in the event the levy just isn’t doable.
Several former members of the volunteer department spoke up and stressed the need for a plan B, like hiring part-time firefighters now, and called the ask of taxpayers “astronomical” or too strong, too soon.
“We all live in Newbury, and we’re all taxpayers. We realize that it’s a lot to ask,” Chief Fagan said.
“We realize there has to be a plan B, and we know we can’t keep doing this the way we are,” he added. “But we had to start somewhere, and this [levy] is where we’re starting.”
Residents can check the Newbury Volunteer Fire Department’s website, newburyfire.com/station_addition, for the full presentation, design plans and levy calculator.