EVART -- The Evart Area Joint Fire Board met with city officials, township officials and members of the public Feb. 21 to discuss possible avenues for additional fire department funding.

Evart Fire Chief Shane Helmer said having to replace equipment was inevitable, and right now there are no funds to do that, so that leaves them with one option -- to borrow the funds.

"Because the department has been underfunded for many years, there is no money set aside to replace equipment, and we have at least two truck replacements coming," said Dan Elliott, city of Evart representative to the fire board.

"The issue with that is that the decision to borrow could be vetoed by one member entity that decided they didn't want to borrow the funds," he said. "At some point we will have to close the doors if we can't solve the equipment problem."

The fire board has been in discussions for more than two years regarding the need for additional fire department funding. The meeting Friday gave city and township officials, as well as members of the fire board, an opportunity to hear from Michael Homier, a lawyer with FosterSwift attorneys in Grand Rapids, regarding avenues for additional funding available to them as a joint fire department.

The fire department is currently funded through a joint agreement between the city of Evart, and the townships of Orient, Sylvan, Osceola and Evart. Each member entity contributes an amount equal to 1 mill in property tax values to the fire department fund.

In addition, the fire department receives grant funds from a variety of sources, for a total annual revenue of around $200,000.

"Our operating budget can be sustained at this level, with the grants we continue to receive, but what concerns me is we have no money to buy equipment," Helmer said.

According to Helmer, the department would need an additional $155,000 in annual revenues to fund equipment and capital expenditures going forward.

An additional 1 mill would bring in around $200,000 in additional funds annually. If we get that along with the 1 mill already being received, 1.17 mills would then go into departmental operations and .83 mills would go into a fund for equipment and capital expenditures, he said.

Funding options under consideration

The fire board is looking at two possible avenues for additional revenues -- a special assessment for fire department funding or establishing a fire authority with the ability to levy its own millage to fund operations.

According to Michigan Act 33, a township or township board acting jointly may establish a special assessment district to defray the expenses of police and fire protection.

In doing so, they must determine the boundaries of the special assessment district by resolution and determine the amount of the special assessment. The assessment is then collected at the same time as other taxes are levied and collected.

Michigan Act 57 allows a township or township board acting jointly to establish an authority for the purpose of providing emergency services. The authority's jurisdiction would be comprised of the total territory within the cooperating municipalities.

Once established, the authority is allowed to levy a tax on all taxable property within the jurisdiction to fund the operations of the authority, with the approval of the voters within that jurisdiction.

"The advantage of an authority is that they have the right to propose their own millage so they become their own funding mechanism separate from the member entities," Homier said. "They would define their district, levy their own mileage, collect their owns funds and operate within the approved budget."

Orient Township representative and chairman of the fire board Brad Morgan said the concern with establishing an authority was that the townships would lose all control and influence in how the department is run because the authority would be an autonomous organization.

Homier told the board that because the existing agreement between the member entities seems to be working well, his recommendation would be to set up a special assessment district for each member municipality to fund their obligation to the fire department that would include some reserve capacity for future purchases and capital expenditures.

A special assessment district can last for an indeterminate length of time with the member entities deciding the amount of the assessment on an annual basis according to the budget needs at that time, he said.

Sylvan Township Supervisor Angela Moore said it was her opinion that they should go to the public and let them decide.

"In all fairness, we need to leave it to the people that voted us into our positions and ask them what they want for the future of the fire department," she said. "It has to be what the people want and not what five people on five different boards is deciding for them. It's their money."

The fire board decided to put the option of a special assessment for the fire department funding before the people to get feedback on the plan.

They will have a joint public meeting for residents of each of the member townships and the city of Evart to hear what the fire department funding needs are, learn about the special assessment option, and express their opinions as to whether they approve of that option or not.

A date for the public meeting has not yet been set.