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Liberty Twp. fire levy possibly postponed again

Liberty Twp. residents likely will not see a fire levy on their ballots next year, even though the fire fund for next year shows a $750,000-plus deficit and reserves for the township’s fire department evaporating rapidly under explosive growth.

Township trustees got their first look at the $25 million spending plan for 2017 this week, but there was no fire levy talk. In June, trustees set the wheels in motion to put a tax levy on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Predictions were if the township’s budget remains status quo, the fire and EMS fund balance, initially estimated to be $1.1 million to start next year, will evaporate and put the fund into the negative to the tune of $233,439 by the start of 2018. The 2017 budget numbers show a combined beginning fund balance of $2.4 million and an ending balance of $1.7 million.

The trustees pulled back on the ballot question in August, saying with continued explosive growth both on the commercial and residential front, the trustees wanted time to gauge the true tax base.

“I don’t feel comfortable until we have all the figures and do our due diligence to be able to go out to our residents with this at this point,” Trustee Christine Matacic said back then. “Especially with some of these properties that are not on line and if they come on line, then what it means is whatever millage we would have would be spread out so each homeowner would be paying less.”

Trustee President Tom Farrell said he believes they need to postpone the ballot issue again because they will have a new fire chief and director of safety services — Paul Stumpf is retiring in September — coming soon and that person deserves the right to weigh in on the decision.

“If we are going to hire a new fire chief/safety director, we want their input on the fire levy, the value and if we need it,” Farrell said. “We thought it was irresponsible of us to make that decision, and then have the new fire chief inherit our decision.”

For 2016, township officials are estimating Liberty Twp. will take in $6 million more in revenues — the collected reached just over $29 million for all funds — than expected and anticipate a $2.8 million carryover. Preliminary numbers for next year set expenses at $25.1 million and revenues at $24.3 million. The township reserves going into 2017 for the general fund is just shy of $13 million.

In just over two decades the township has quadrupled in size, now standing at about 40,000 residents and with Liberty Center — the huge new $350 million mixed use development — and others, the township is finding they need to add more people as well as address facilities issues. Township Administrator Kristin Bitonte pencilled in a marketing assistant, an administrative assistant and a co-op employee to work on various different projects.

Finance Director Michelle Greis said the township has budgeted $100,000 for the three new positions and that represents a 12 percent increase in personnel wages. The township added two new sheriff’s deputies to its contract with the Butler County Sheriff’s Office this year — no additions were added for next year — and Trustee Christine Matacic said they may want to revisit that line in the 2017 to see if another increase is warranted.

“Taking a look at the (police) run volume since Liberty Center has been on board as well as additional businesses and residents that we’ve seen in this community, I think we need to take a serious look at our staffing levels,” she said. “Making sure, I know we do this every year, but I want to make sure we’ve got the best protection for our residents out there, within the budget obviously, and we also owe it to our businesses.”

Lt. Morgan Dallman, who is in charge of the sheriff’s office post in Liberty, said calls for police services have increased from 13,184 calls in 2011 to 15,908 in the span of January through October this year. They responded to 18,307 calls — Liberty Center opened in October last year — last year and 17,282 in 2014.

Earlier this year the trustees and staff also tackled space needs. With future growth a certainty, trustees are trying to make long-term plans to right-size their facilities. They need a new service garage, to expand administration’s space and build two new fire stations. Rough estimates were $10 to $11 million. Bitonte said she is still negotiating a contract with their architect, so those fees are not in the preliminary budget.

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