Ind. legislation seeks to protect fire districts' territory

The bill seeks to add more protections for fire protection districts that could have part of their territories annexed by nearby municipalities


By Ernest Rollins
Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind.

Indiana legislation heading into a conference committee today in Indianapolis seeks to add more protections for fire protection districts that could have part of their territories annexed by nearby municipalities.

The proposed bill would not prevent cities from annexing territory in fire protection districts. It would, however, help annexed properties in many of those fire districts remain a part of the district, including properties in newly added areas of the district.

The proposed bill would not prevent cities from annexing territory in fire protection districts. It would, however, help annexed properties in many of those fire districts remain a part of the district, including properties in newly added areas of the district. (Photo/Monroe Fire Protection District Facebook)
The proposed bill would not prevent cities from annexing territory in fire protection districts. It would, however, help annexed properties in many of those fire districts remain a part of the district, including properties in newly added areas of the district. (Photo/Monroe Fire Protection District Facebook)

“Under Senate Bill 603, if you live in the fire district now, the fire district will always be your fire and emergency services provider,” Monroe Fire Protection District Fire Chief Dustin Dillard said.

All three state lawmakers representing Bloomington were appointed to the bill’s conference committee.

State Rep. Jeff Ellington, R-Bloomington, said the bill protects the investments residents made to have fire protection services in more rural areas of the county. This includes paying taxes to build a fire station. In addition, it ensures fire protection districts can still operate effectively even after a municipality annexes a portion of its territory. Lost territory for a fire district generally causes a loss of revenue.

"We don’t do this with water companies. We do not do this with school districts,” Dillard said. “Once infrastructure is in place and is strategically located for the citizens it serves, it is not affected by annexation. Why should fire protection and the massive amount of infrastructure, critical infrastructure, be any different?”

Ellington said the bill also deters city officials from incorporating property simply to increase revenue.

If property owners in the fire protection district are annexed, under this bill, they would pay taxes to both the city and the fire protection district. Ellington said city officials would not be able to tax annexed residents for fire services. However, they can be taxed for all the other city services, such as policing and street cleaning.

State Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, said that provision is one reason he does not support this bill. He said to not tax residents just for fire protection services could be a challenge for city officials, since the money collected for city fire services is intermingled with other dollars in the general fund. It also, he said, would conflict with current state law that mandates that once a city annexes an area, the city provides all services.

“It might sound like a simple concept on its surface,” Stoops said. “But you are dealing with taxation and requirements for annexation, that would cause a lot of trouble.”

Stoops said there is valid concern about what happens to a fire protection district, its assets and any outstanding debt if part of its district is annexed, but feels such a nuanced issue should be discussed extensively in a summer study committee with all parties that may be affected to come up with a good, thought-out solution.

He noted a few cities are trying to get themselves exempted from the bill, perhaps because the proposal has had little consideration before going into the conference committee.

State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, introduced an amendment when the bill came before the House that would have put the issue before a summer study committee as part of a broader look at annexation issues.

Pierce said the current bill reads like special legislation, since it only would impact a few locations in the state. That could open it up to legal challenge. He also said the mechanics of the bill are not well thought out. And one of the areas that would be affected is currently part of a lawsuit. Pierce said this bill could interfere with those proceedings.

“It’s just a mess of a bill that has not been well thought,” Pierce said.

Dillard disagrees, noting fire protection districts have been talking about the issue for several years and have studied it. He said the bill started as amendments to existing bills in 2017 and this year it was introduced as part of different bills.

“This is legislation that should have been pursued 30 years ago,” he said.

City officials are concerned that this bill would negatively impact the established annexation process.

City spokeswoman Yael Ksander said the city does not support this legislation, stating it would leave suburban areas that makes sense to be incorporated into the city with inadequate fire protection.

She said the legislation has the potential to create more “islands” — areas that are within city limits, but are serviced by another jurisdiction. Three such islands already exist within the city of Bloomington and were included as part of the annexation proposal floated in 2017 to be brought within the city. Ksander said this bill would make it more difficult to address those “islands.”

During 2017 discussions about the city’s plan to annex around 9,500 acres, the proposed annexation of those islands drew almost no contention. Some residents thought they already were a part of the city.

She said having “islands” can lead to inefficient delivery of fire protection services. While the city and other fire departments have mutual aid agreements, Ksander said if something happens in one fire department’s jurisdiction, outside departments do not respond unless their help is requested by the home agency. She said relying on mutual aid can slow the response to an emergency. Ksander also said the Bloomington Fire Department is better at providing services in certain areas than other departments.

Ellington does not see this as an issue. As a former 30-year firefighter with the city, he believes agencies work well together to help the public through mutual aid agreements. He said firefighters are more concerned about quickly getting help to an emergency situation than about who has jurisdiction.

More about Senate Bill 603

The latest version of Senate Bill 603 states that all properties in a fire protection district established prior to July 1, 1987, will continue to receive fire protection from and provide tax support for the district, even if they are annexed by a nearby municipality.

Under the current law, a fire protection district established prior to June 14, 1987, is already protected from annexation. The Monroe Fire Protection District — formerly the Perry-Clear Creek Fire Protection District and the county’s only fire protection district — was established June 29, 1967.

Dillard said lawmakers described moving the date as a conforming change since many dates associated with state law fall either on the first or end of a month — typically either June 30 or July 1. Some fire districts already have protections under current law.

The bill also states that even if a fire protection district is established after July 1, 1987, if it has a gross assessed value of more than $1 billion on the date the annexation ordinance is adopted, the area intended for annexation still remains part of the district.

Another provision of the bill changes when property that is added to a district is considered a part of the special taxing unit. Property added to an existing fire protection district will be considered a part of that taxing unit as of the date it was originally established.

Therefore, if Van Buren Township becomes part of the Monroe Fire Protection District (it is moving toward joining), under this bill it would be treated as if it had been part of the district since 1967.

The proposal was initially introduced as part House Bill 1214. While it passed the House, Dillard said lawmakers in the Senate were concerned about having two separate topics as part of one bill. Senate Bill 603 was offered for a “strip and insert” after it passed the Senate, Dillard said, because the language it originally contained was similar to a House bill that had already advanced.

The language amending the bill to focus on fire protection districts and annexation was introduced in a House committee and then voted on by the full House, which passed it. However, since the Senate author dissented, it now moves to conference committee.

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©2019 the Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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