The more than 3,400 residents of Vernon Township in southeastern Jackson County rely on the Crothersville-Vernon Township Volunteer Fire Department in several ways.
Firefighters provide fire suppression, automobile extrication, medical response, hazardous materials response, water rescues and other rescues.
To do their jobs effectively, department personnel have to go through training and must have proper equipment and vehicles.
But all of that takes one big thing — money.
In recent years, the department has received about $28,000 from the township trustee, but it has outputted about double that amount.
To make up that difference, several fundraisers are conducted throughout the year, including hauling water to fill pools and wells, conducting fish fries, providing meals to celebrate a local industry’s safety record and renting the fire station for events and the sign out front to advertise community events. The department also practices better money management and accepts donations.
After careful consideration and research, department officials decided to transition to a fire district — the last township fire department in the county to do so.
That will result in an increase in property taxes for Vernon Township residents, starting in 2017, based on the size of their property and assessed values.
But becoming a fire district will help the department have the necessary funds to continue serving the area for years to come, Fire Chief Ben Spencer said.
“We pride ourselves in attempting to set that bar and to reach that bar — our own goals — and we felt like this is something that in order to continue to do that and to provide that top-notch care, we would have to go this route,” he said.
“The more we can get this out, the more that people understand that we’re not taking this money and putting it into our own pockets. We’re not going out and grabbing for money just because we need it or because we want it,” he said. “It’s because the community truly needs it, and this is a top-notch community, and we want to provide that service.”
The department became a fire district Jan. 1, but it’s still under contract through the township trustee through Dec. 31.
As of Jan. 1, 2017, the newly created five-member fire district board, picked by the county commissioners, will have the authority to set the property tax rate for the fire district and collect money. The fire department will receive installments in June and December. It will operate under the same name and remain a volunteer department.
In January 2010, most of the county’s township fire departments, with the exception of Carr and Crothersville-Vernon, switched from a system managed by the township trustee to a fire district. Some fire officials at that time feared the state might require rural township fire departments to merge into a countywide system.
Spencer said his department decided to see how moving to a fire district affected the other township departments.
“One of the things that we truly believe in is when taxpayers give us our tax credits, we want to make sure that we are spending them very wisely,” Spencer said. “One of the things that we did not want to do at that time was to raise taxes for no real good reason. We want to make sure that we are being very responsible with that.”
After talking to other township departments and studying the Indiana statutes, Crothersville-Vernon officials began taking the steps toward becoming a fire district.
“In years past, the other townships in the county did this, and we kind of laid low and didn’t do it,” said Lynn Howard, president of the fire district board. “But now, funding is getting to the point where it about has to be done. The profitability of fundraisers in the past compared to what it is now isn’t there.”
Howard was with the fire department for 20 years until retiring in December 2014. In his last year as chief, he said he had a $28,000 budget but spent $57,000.
“Our main concern right now is funding, and of course, when you get into a fire district, it allows for them to have better funding for equipment, better funding for training,” he said. “That’s the main reason for doing it. We have to do it to keep the quality protection that the community needs and to also keep the quality of equipment the guys need to protect themselves.”
Spencer said a study by a financial consultant, who is familiar with the department’s income and how it operates, showed that the larger amount of land a Vernon Township resident owns, the more their property taxes will increase. But that difference wasn’t a shock, he said.
County commissioners made a contract with the fire department and selected the fire district board, making it a new taxing entity.
Once the board sets the tax, it will go through the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.
After that organization signs off on it, it will be passed on to the county council and then revert back to the commissioners to go to the fire district and fire department.
Currently, the fire department doesn’t have funding to pay for personnel to attend certain training classes. Upgrades also are needed for some equipment to meet National Fire Protection Association standards.
Turnout gear, which includes helmet, hood, coat, pants, boots and gloves, lasts 10 years and costs $2,500. That cost will continue to grow over the years, Spencer said.
“If (a firefighter) has got out-of-date gear or non-NFPA-compliant gear, he’s not going to get the benefits that are set aside, so that’s huge with me,” he said. “I want to make sure they are protected both on the front end so they don’t get injured but also on the back end so if something does occur, they are protected financial-wise.”
The fire department also has to maintain a good Insurance Safety Office rating. The ISO looks at training, apparatus, water flows and communications.
If a department doesn’t meet the standards, the ISO could drop the rating, which might result in an increase in township residents’ homeowners insurance.
A good report, on the other hand, could raise the ISO rating and lower the homeowners insurance.
“In the long run, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to get better as a group, as a fire department to not only protect the citizens, but also to help them out,” Spencer said.
“Any time you talk about raising taxes and you talk about district, it kind of scares people,” he said. “I’m right there with them. I go paycheck to paycheck, too. But if you can do it correctly and you can get the right equipment and you can get the right training, you can actually help yourself out in the long run.”
Switching to a fire district also will provide more security for the department because it will have funding to fix equipment and do preventative maintenance, Spencer said.
Firefighters also will be better trained and be able to provide better response.
“We’re kind of the jack of all trades right now,” Spencer said, referring to the variety of the department’s calls. “We want to make sure that with us going to district, we have funding, we have the capabilities of getting our guys trained to where they want to be and to make sure that they are very crafty in their craft so that they can go out and perform their jobs.”
Fundraisers also will take on a different feel. Spencer said the stress level skyrockets when the department knows it needs to raise a certain amount of money to pay insurance and bills, put gas in the firetrucks and fulfill other needs. A lot of time also is spent planning fundraisers.
Secured income through the fire district, however, will change the overall thought and attitude toward the fundraisers and take off the stress, Spencer said.
“We want to continue what we do, but that whole attitude is going to change from having to to wanting to,” Spencer said.
“We’re here to serve the community. We’re here because of our community. Without them, we wouldn’t exist,” he said. “So we want to make sure we take care of them not only in their times of need and emergency, but also if they need anything else.”
Crothersville-Vernon Township Volunteer Fire Department
Currently has 16 firefighters on its roster but always is looking for more volunteers
Averages between 375 and 400 calls per year
Each firefighter averages donating between five and 10 hours per week on emergency responses
Each firefighters averages an additional five to 10 hours per week on non-emergency activities, fundraisers and maintenance
Mandatory two hours of fire training each month
Medical training two hours per month
Meeting night the second Tuesday of each month (open to the public)
Two trained and certified fire investigators on roster
Two trained and certified fire instructors on roster
Each firefighter is trained to mandatory certification level prior to ever responding to any calls; this is a state certification class and is about 65 hours long
Each firefighter must have no less than Firefighter I certification within three years of joining the department
Twelve out of 16 firefighters are hazardous materials trained/certified
Crothersville-Vernon Township Volunteer Fire Department roster
Ben Spencer, fire chief
Charles Densford, deputy chief/treasurer
Jason Hillenburg, lieutenant/public information officer/board of directors
Dennis Maxie, firefighter
Corey Strong, firefighter
Chris Seal, firefighter/board of directors
Matt Browning, firefighter/board of directors
Robert Baker, firefighter
Logan Isenhower, firefighter/board of directors
Sally Deaton, firefighter/board of directors
Cody Defibaugh, firefighter
Alex Oak, firefighter
Christopher Cooper, trainee
Teia Thomas, trainee
Zach Elliott, trainee/secretary
Jon Hunt, trainee
Information: 812-793-3473 or find the department on Facebook
Members of the Crothersville-Vernon Township Volunteer Fire Department fire district board are President Lynn Howard, Steve Murphy, Terry Gray, Brad Barron and Vaughn Isenhower.