EMPIRE TOWNSHIP — Empire Township residents are being asked to approve a five-year tax proposal of up to 7 mills for fire and emergency services.
The tax is a renewal of a 5-mill tax that has been in place for 10 years, plus an increase of 2 mills to cover a sharp increase in costs for the Glen Lake Fire Department.
If the full amount is levied, the tax would bring in $1,503,610 in its first year, but township Clerk Christine M. Neiswonger said only 6 mills will be collected the first year. In following years only the amount needed to fund fire and emergency services will be levied, she said.
At 6 mills the tax will cost the owner of a home with a taxable value of $100,000 about $600 per year. That same owner now pays about $500 per year.
The millage is needed to pay for costs that keep going up, said Empire Township Trustee Casey Noonan.
“We’re only going to levy what we need to pay the bills,” Noonan said. “It secures the great fire and rescue that we have right now.”
The millage request was approved by the township board in July. The current 10-year millage expires in December; the new tax, if approved, will be collected in December 2021.
Empire Township began contracting with the Glen Arbor department for EMS services in 2001, with a full merger taking place in 2008. Under the contract, Empire Township pays 47 percent of the operations and capital budget, with Glen Arbor Township paying 53 percent.
Contracted services are paid on a monthly basis with those costs coming in at $1,212,048 for the current fiscal year that started in April, according to information from the township, or $100,400 per month. Last year the township paid $73,000 per month.
“Our contract costs have increased so greatly that we can’t afford to pay them,” Neiswonger said. “We’ve been having to pull from our reserve funds to pay it.”
The millage request is driven by $560,000 in increased costs for the Glen Lake department put into place after fire Chief Bryan Ferguson took the helm in March 2019. He had been with the department for 13 years.
Ferguson said the department had been having trouble attracting employees. A wage study was done and found that Glen Lake’s pay was lower than for surrounding departments, he said. A 10 percent wage adjustment for EMTs and 3 percent for paramedics was put into place.
“That got us up to par with everybody else in the area,” he said.
In addition, three new part-time EMTs positions were created to help provide 24/7 coverage. About $250,000 was budgeted for a new ambulance, with another $50,000 set aside to catch catch up on maintenance of a fleet of vehicles valued at about $3 million, Ferguson said.
Some Empire residents question the millage, including Chris Frey, who said he’s not sure how many people are even aware of the ballot request. He also thinks the contract needs to be renegotiated, that Empire residents are paying too much.
“I’m just wondering about the millage without a full understanding of the underlying contract that it supports,” Frey said.
Mary Sharry said 6 mills will be levied the first year, but after that, who knows?
“I’m concerned about this increase and what it is going for,” Sharry said, adding that the township may be trying to pull in extra money for a new fire station.
“This has been an issue that has been swinging around for a long time,” she said. “Are we going to move the station out of the village? What is the plan?”
Empire Township Board members have talked for several years about building a new fire station, as the current one is too small for modern-day fire and rescue equipment. Gasoline fumes also seep into the rooms that were added in order to man the department 24/7, Neiswonger said.
“It’s an old building that we refinished to fit the living quarters in it,” she said.
They’ve looked at properties in the township, but the plan to move the station has been put on the back burner for now, Neiswonger said.
“It’s not something that we’re seriously considering at this point,” Noonan said.