Thursday, November 01, 2007

Confusion over Sylvania fire levies

Tonight I had Carol Lindhuber, from Supporters for a Safe Sylvania (SAFE), as my first guest Eye on Toledo. (If you like to listen to the podcast, just click the show link or use the link in the left-hand column.)

There's a lot of confusion over the Sylvania fire levies because of the number (3) and the claims of the supporters. One of the three levies is a 1.5 Mill operating/capital levy which is the result of a voter petition from SAFE. The levy is Issue 5 in the unincorporated areas of Sylvania Township and Issue 20 in the City of Sylvania. The other levies are Issue 5 (in both jurisdictions) which a .5 Mill operating levy and Issue 6 (in both jurisdictions) which is a .5 Mill capital levy.

Despite Ms. Lindhuber's claims to the contrary, there are a lot of indications that the SAFE group is primarily firefighter union members. Two Sylvania Township Trustees, Deidra Liedel and Pam Hanley, were charged with making false statements for saying this 1.5 Mill levy is "an effort of the union to continue to control the direction of our fire department" and calling it a "fire fighter initiative."

Documents filed with the Ohio Elections Commission indicate that:

* 41% of the levy petitions were circulated by union members or their spouses,
* a noted local labor attorney, Joe Allotta, is the committee's treasurer,
* the committee's attorney, Keith Wilkowski, interchangeably uses "my clients" and "the firefighters,"
* their pre-general campaign report indicates 60% of their donations come from unions, union members or their spouses
* SAFE's official website (since removed) previously contained the statement the "KEEP SAFE is a campaign being run by your Sylvania Full-Time Firefighters."
(exhibits to support these statements were included in the filings)

The OEC determined there was "no probable cause of a violation and dismissed" the charges of making false statements.

SAFE filed two other charges against these trustees claiming a violation of law for using "public funds ... to support or oppose ... the passage of a levy or bond issue." Both those charges were dismissed due to the OEC's lack of jurisdiction over the matter.

SAFE had taken exception to a motion passed by the Trustees opposing the 1.5 Mill levy. What I find particularly interesting is that they did not file a similar complaint against the third trustee, Carol Contrada, even though she submitted a motion supporting the 1.5 Mill levy...and on Oct. 8th, SAFE had requested that the Sylvania School Board take a vote in support of their levy.

These two actions clearly indicate that the concern wasn't the action itself, but the outcome that SAFE objected to.

SAFE's main point is that the community is not safe because there are not enough firefighters on duty. However, the union contract with the township calls for minimum staffing of 14 per 24-hour period, which is what the current staffing levels are. Ms. Lindhuber said this was true, but that the number was a minimum and 'wasn't safe.'

If I were a member of the firefighters union, I'd be pretty upset by this claim that we'd negotiated a minimum staffing level that 'wasn't safe.'

But the levies are confusing from a budget perspective as well. Dan Simko, the township Fiscal Officer, has come out in favor of the 1.5 Mill levy and SAFE is using his budget projections in their claim that the Fire Fund faces a $1.6 million deficit.

But the trustees have the legal ability to direct certain funding as well as how costs are allocated back to their general fund. The trustees' projection of a $500,000 deficit is based upon their vote on those items, so the actual budget is what the trustees passed, not what the fiscal officer projected. The Fire Fund deficit of $500,000 will be covered by the .5 Mill levy that the trustees placed on the ballot.

The trustees also placed a .5 Mill bond on the ballot for the capital improvements recommended by their Fire/EMS Advisory Board. Other recommendations from this board include using more part-time and/or volunteer firefighters to help keep personnel costs down. When I asked Ms. Lindhuber if SAFE supported the use of "part paid" or volunteers, she emphasized that they wanted the staffing levels brought up to 21 full-time firefighters per 24-hour period.

Another contention of SAFE is that the 1.5 Mill levy will allow the firefighters to again provide basic life support transport, rather than letting the private ambulance companies do this. Sylvania had experimented with using firefighters for this service, but found that it was costing the jurisdiction money, even though they were billing insurance companies for any possible reimbursement of the transportation costs. After 18 months, they discontinued firefighter transport and went back to using private ambulance companies.

(In March, Toledo decided to switch to firefighter transport for such calls without any discussion the applicability of Sylvania's loss of money in doing the same thing.)

In an email I didn't have time to read on air, Steve says:

"The 1.5 is a horrific waste, as all it does is place a very high dollar basic transport unit ($600,000/yr), staffed with Paramedics, where private sector staffs with basic emt's. This basic unit is not a life squad like Carol says in her recent letters to the editors. She calls it a basic life squad which confuses voters into believing that the life squad has been eliminated. It's a ride to the hospital, that's it. No money left over for buildings to speak of.

Pull up the Sylvania Township website, look under fire department, check 2005 and 2006 stats and you'll see there's little fire loss over $5000. You can't schedule 17-21 firefighters everyday just in case there's a big fire. You schedule a reasonable amount of people, and call for mutual aid when needed. Sylvania's majority of calls are medical related. Over 3000 rescues and 700 fire runs, with less than 10% actually involving any smoke or fire."

Sylvania residents said no to a 1.1 Mill levy in May 2005 and two individuals prominent in that effort are now trustees making the recommendation for a .5 Mill operating levy and asking their Fire Department to live within their means. Tuesday's vote will show if they still represent the will of the majority of their constituents.

1 comment:

Tim Higgins said...


This is indeed a complex situation, and one that appears to be a contentious one as well. Add in the current level of voter apathy and this situation lends itself to serious mischief through union demagoguery ("making use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power" for those who don't want to look it up in the dictionary).

Unless the residents of Sylvania wake up quickly, this issue will be decided by the unions calling out their membership to vote for what they, not necessarily the citizens of Sylvania, want.

"We in America do not have government of the majority. We have government of the majority who participate." - Thomas Jefferson

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