A public hearing Tuesday, Feb. 8, at 5 pm, at Luther Town Hall is floated as a meeting of the minds over a fire subscription program implemented by the Town Board of Trustees. That town action for the new fee brought a firestorm of questions when the invoices started arriving last year. The public hearing is a response to that public request.
The controversy is not really about whether the town’s volunteer fire department needs more funding. On that, most agree. Luther’s fire department is operated by area volunteers, with the only paid member being the fire chief. Thank you volunteers, always. Much of LFD’s equipment was used when it came to Luther. And even though the water tanker truck does the job, if you’ve seen it, you know that it could take center stage in a classic car show celebrating the past. Still, LFD keeps it all running, working and ready to roll to the scene of a fire or an emergency.
The question is from where additional funding should come. Some options considered by the board include this new subscription fee or a fire protection district, an additional fee from the Luther Public Works Authority similar to water, sewer or trash service, or a combination of all of those. Observers insist there are other options to help fund the volunteer force that does not include a mandatory fee. Some of those include buckling down and seeking grant funding and a concerted effort toward fundraising. For those of us who have worked in the meticulous and subjective grant writing and fundraising space, we might concede that making a subscription fee is an easier way, especially if you have willing subscribers.
During meetings last summer, the board apparently hashed out all of those options and went the subscription route. The trouble of it all is that the public wasn’t paying attention at the time (including The Luther Register, we apologetically admit), and the new ordinance passed without any public input.
The public’s attention was captured when letters arrived in the mail assessing a $250 subscription for the volunteer fire force. Incidentally, to some, this fee is not a big deal, and the Town has received exactly $15,000 as of today, that’s 60 subscribers out of the first round of letters sent. The funding would be used to modernize the fire department and update equipment including vehicles and protective gear. Long-term projects include a new water tower north of town, and pay for the volunteer firefighters who drop everything when the fire bell rings and risk their lives.
Others question the legal grounding of the subscription fee leading Town attorney Beth Anne Childs to prepare her legal opinion on the issue. Still more questions surround the transparency of how the subscription money will be used, as well as data on fire calls throughout the fire district. The fire district, incidentally, is bigger than the town limits, but a bit smaller than the Luther school district. The school district reaches over into Logan County and Lincoln County.
A December 2021 Town Board meeting brought a crowd of concerned citizens who challenged the legality of the fee and expressed other concerns. At that time, Trustee Carla Caruthers called to “go back to the drawing board” on the whole issue. There was also a board decision to call this public meeting that is happening on Tuesday, inviting residents to attend. There was also a decision to create an ad hoc advisory group on the issue.
The agenda for Tuesday’s Public Hearing reads: Public hearing, consideration and discussion on the Luther Fire Department, including funding, subscription service, expenses, coverage, equipment, manning, and other related matters.
In addition, a postcard was mailed to residents.
Additional agenda item
Who will come to the meeting? The timing is tough for those who work out of town, but if anyone wants to speak, the agenda includes the following instructions:
Citizen participation: Citizens may address the Board during open meetings on any matter on the agenda prior to the Board taking action on the matter. On any item not on the current agenda, citizens may address the Board under the agenda item Citizen Participation. Citizens should fill out a Citizen’s Participation Request form and give it to the Mayor. Citizen Participation is for information purposes only, and the Board cannot discuss, act or make any decisions on matters presented under Citizens Participation. Citizens are requested to limit their comments to two minutes.Agenda. Pubic Hearing Meeting Notice.
Another issue, the the ad hoc citizen’s advisory group. During a special meeting on Jan. 27, the trustees spoke at length about the composition of the group and its purpose. How many persons? Should renters be included? How often will they meet or NOT meet. As a personal observation, the discussion got cringy at times, and you can watch it from the Luther Register’s FB page. Back in December, the suggestion for a volunteer group seemed like a real opportunity for a community to work together to find solutions. It could be an opportunity to demonstrate the success of being able to make a difference somewhere in government, in this case at the local level that hits closest to home. There are several willing to serve, including firefighters who live in the district but work elsewhere and insurance industry experts. But the Jan. 27 discussion was confusing and seemed to lean toward a turf battle in favor of bureaucracy, instead of an effort to rethink and embrace the offers of help from those willing. With the difficulty the town experiences in finding committed volunteers in other areas, this might have seemed like a breath of fresh air. An opportunity to collaborate. A willingness to seek a do-over.
Another personal observation, since you are still reading: those volunteers who serve on the Parks and Planning Commissions are to be commended, but they rarely are appreciated for their hours of service. We see you, and thank you. The same goes for Trustees. While they are elected and have the ultimate responsibility and take recommendations from the groups like parks, planning, even the fire and police departments, our town trustees serve without pay. And the job takes a lot of energy, tremendous research, and an unenviable responsibility to become versed in a variety of issues from sewers to fire trucks, sales tax revenues to reading the big book of ordinances. Then to do the job well, trustees will want to know the residents and business owners, and be transparent. That takes a lot of listening and doing, time taken from their citizen lives, family responsibilities, and careers for those who are not retired. We see you too Trustees, and thank you.
Following the public hearing, the regular monthly meetings of the Town Board of Trustees, Luther Public Works Authority and Luther Economic Development Authority will begin at 7 pm.