City of Worthington leaders are seeking more revenue from residents of unincorporated Sharon Township and Riverlea to fund fire and emergency medical services.
The amount of that increase remains to be seen, as representatives from those entities are negotiating to determine a fair amount to charge.
The fire department was developed and built up over decades under the guidance of township leaders, as was typically the process throughout Ohio. Property taxes throughout the township – including the incorporated area of Worthington – funded the department.
During the late 1980s and early ’90s, discussions moved forward to transfer fire and EMS operations from the township to the city.
This allowed the city to use income taxes to pay for the services, while reducing the property tax millage paid in Riverlea and Sharon Township.
When the transfer was approved by voters and took place, a 6-mill levy was removed for all property owners and replaced with a 3-mill levy assessed in just the unincorporated areas and Riverlea. That millage, over nearly three decades, has been reduced to a collected rate of 1.06 mills currently.
The millage generates about $143,000 annually for fire services, a contribution which Worthington leaders have requested be increased to $1 million per year. Such a bump would require an additional 7 or so mills, according to documents provided by city and township officials.
“They are great partners with us,” said Township Trustee John Oberle during an informational meeting Jan. 25.
“That’s our starting point. We are very proud of our fire department. It’s part of our fabric, our history.”
That history includes a stretch of nearly 30 years during which that initial 3 mills of property tax in 1994 has been rolled back substantially because of state laws concerning the collection of property taxes.
Residents in the unincorporated areas – which include Rosslyn, West Kanawha and Westview avenues as well as portions of Worthington Hills – currently pay about 12 mills for township police protection, 2.1 mills for roads and 0.5 mills for upkeep of Flint and Walnut Grove cemeteries. The bulk of property taxes are assessed for schools and county services.
“We have a long and positive relationship,” said Robyn Stewart, interim city manager for Worthington. “We respect this relationship and its history.”
She said the city’s request is based on the demand for fire and EMS runs serving the township areas, which equate to 13 percent of the runs, as well as the square miles, property valuation and U.S. Census information for the areas. The request is allowed by the original contract, she said, because city residents have increased their own taxation with income tax hikes since the original transfer took place.
The overall cost for fire services has escalated in the city from $5.4 million in 2020 to an estimated $8.6 million in 2027, according to city budget documents. Capital expenditures for new equipment also drives the need for more revenue, said Fire Chief Mark Zambito.
“We are fortunate to have the residents we have,” said Oberle. “Whenever we put things on the ballot that make sense, they pass by 70 percent or more. We think we will succeed.”
Because any levy passed by voters in 2023 would not be collected until starting in January 2024, trustees said they saw no real reason to rush for a decision by the Feb. 1 deadline for the May ballot. Instead, they agreed to continue negotiations with city representatives with an eye toward planning an issue on the November general election ballot.
The challenge, trustees said, is to find a millage number that is fair to the city and also palatable to voters.
“We have an obligation to increase,” the funds paid by the township to the city, said Oberle. “The amount is not where it should be. I’m not saying where it should be.”
A 45-day period of negotiations began once the Feb. 1 deadline passed. If a path forward cannot be approved by both sides, the issue would go to binding arbitration per the original contract.
Trustees met in a special meeting Feb. 22, when they discussed what might be a fair amount to the township as negotiations progressed. They agreed the payments needed to be higher, but should be fair in relation to what Perry Township pays the city of Worthington and also how much the city has increased its own tax rate.
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