By SARA CLIFFORD AND SUZANNAH COUCH | The Democrat
Around 20 volunteer firefighters from three departments responded to the Carmel Corn Cottage on Sept. 16 and were able to prevent the fire from spreading to other nearby businesses.
If that call had come in a couple hours earlier when those volunteers were still at work — or if an “angel” firefighter from Greenwood wouldn’t have happened to be in town to help the first two on scene — the ending could have been much different.
The town was lucky, said Nick Kelp, chief of Brown County (Nashville) Volunteer Fire Department.
“This should be a wake-up call that we need some staffing here on this station. That is their job to do,” he said.
“If this even happened two hours earlier, it’s a different story — even 20 minutes earlier. I’m still stuck at work for 20 minutes. … It doubles in size every minute or two minutes; it depends on how much newer stuff filled with plastic is in there.”
Kelp’s question for the local government is: “How many times will they gamble that everything will be OK before the decision is made to put more effort, money, resources and time into emergency services, including the volunteer fire service?”
The Nashville Town Council was not prepared to answer that question during their meeting the night after the fire, which included a public hearing on the 2021 town budget.
For 2021, the council has upped the fire department’s contract amount by $3,000, to $20,000.
Their insurance bills alone are about $16,000, Kelp said.
The department also has a $40,000 contract with Washington Township for fire protection.
The town council also directs a portion of property taxes into a cumulative capital development fund for the fire department, which builds up over time for larger items like buildings and equipment. It currently has about $96,000 in it.
The town council hasn’t been able to add any new fire tax on its own because it is so close to its levy limit.
“This is such an important issue. The entire town could have gone up in flames,” said council member Anna Hofstetter at the Sept. 17 council meeting. “… I think we should make that an absolute priority for 2021 to establish an actual fire department to protect our citizens and our property.”
Council member Nancy Crocker pointed out that that costs money. The 2021 town budget is set to be adopted as currently proposed in October, though money within it is able to be moved around later.
“I think we just need to be aware that if we think about doing that, that taees are going to go up. There’s no other way to fund it unless we increase taxes,” Crocker said.
Council President Jane Gore said it was a discussion for another meeting, but “it’s something we need to be thinking about, for sure.”
‘We need help’
Over the past eight years, three different Nashville fire chiefs have come before the council asking for more help — namely, a mechanism by which to pay firefighters so that volunteers aren’t all they have to rely on.
In 2014, the fire department and the Washington Township Advisory Board attempted to get an emergency fire loan that would have raised taxes on township residents, but not Nashville residents, for three years. It would have meant an extra 13 cents per $100 of assessed property value, or $130 on a $100,000 property.
That would have brought in up to $975,000 for the Nashville fire department, but the outgoing township trustee at the time said that all the department would borrow immediately would be $325,000 for one year, with the next trustee to continue it if desired.
The $325,000 would have been able to fund the salaries of three full-time firefighters and some part-time help, who would have been at the station on weekdays during business hours. Volunteers also would have been used.
The Indiana Department of Local Government Finance shut down that effort after 11 taxpayers petitioned against it. The DLGF mentioned concerns about inequitable taxation in its opinion, since more than just Washington Township residents would have benefited from the service, but only they would have paid for it.
The Brown County Council, in a 4-3 vote in 2014, also did not support that effort.
In 2016, the fire department gained the support of the Nashville Town Council and Washington Township Advisory Board to try to form a fire territory. That’s a new unit of government that could levy a new tax on property owners in those areas.
In 2016, the additional tax was estimated at 8 cents per $100 of assessed property value, or $60 to $80 extra per year on a $100,000 property, for all of Washington Township and Nashville.
To form a territory, though, the Brown County Commissioners would have had to allow Washington Township to exit the Brown County Fire Protection District — a defunct entity that was formed, over much controversy, in 2007 by the commissioners and never was fully functional.
The Brown County Fire Protection District could have levied taxes on all property owners except those in Hamblen Township — who are already in a different fire district — to help pay one or two firefighters to work at each station around the county. That never happened because of a years-long court battle.
A court ruling in the fall of 2015 handed control of the fire district’s future to the current county commissioners, who haven’t made any moves since then on what to do with it.
A new state law that took effect July 1, 2017, HEA 1450, now allows a fire protection district to be a participating unit in a fire protection territory.
But without county leaders’ approval, and without the currently seated town council’s support, the Nashville firefighters can’t form a territory or get new tax money with which to pay firefighters or lessen their current fundraising needs.
This year, Nashville firefighters aren’t even operating their popular fish sandwich tent on fall weekends downtown, due to COVID-19 and concern about volunteer staffing and sanitization. That tent has been a major fundraiser, bringing in around $10,000 for department bills each year.
“We’re here. We need help,” Kelp said last week. “We’re always going to need help. We need somebody to help us, and a lot of people to help us would be nice.”
Six volunteer fire departments operate in Brown County; none of them are paid. Some have plenty of members, while others struggle to keep them on. Some volunteer firefighters are retired and can respond to calls during the day, while others still work full-time at a regular job.
Kelp said firefighters are often thanked for their service whether they save a structure or not, but the ultimate thanks would be to fund paid firefighters at his department to at least protect downtown Nashville and Brown County State Park — two major drivers of tourism and the local economy.
“I’m sitting over here like, ‘Hey, we need help. We do not have money. We do not have staffing. … We do not have this to help out.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, well, we’ll try.’ Then nothing ever happens. From our perspective, it’s honestly just an empty, ‘Thank you,’’ Kelp said.
He said his department appreciates those thank-yous and does not want to sound ungrateful, but the most valuable thank-yous come from those they help. From those who are able, they need more support.
“If we’re going out to somebody who is having chest pains, if they’ve had a fire or been in a wreck, it’s a patient saying, ‘Thank you,’ that means so much more than some bystander saying, ‘Oh, thank God you were here.’ Do something. You guys can help us, and you’re not,” he said.
Kelp said his dream would be to have four paid firefighters on staff 24/7 for a total of 12, along with paid chief and assistant chief administrative positions.
“What paid staff cuts down on is a lot of that response time, so instead of me waiting for people coming … you’re cutting down on 15 minutes if there are already four people here. That time is gone. It’s literally the time you can get from here to wherever the incident is. It will also free up a lot of time on the volunteers as well.”
At the Carmel Corn Cottage fire, Kelp and another volunteer were the only two Nashville volunteers able to respond immediately, but they could not go into the structure without backup on the outside.
An off-duty Greenwood firefighter who happened to be in town that day offered to help. “He was in plain clothes. … I found out later he’s a captain, so he’s not a rookie. He knows a lot of what he’s doing,” Kelp said.
“I came out and he already had our water supply hooked up. There was a hydrant right there in front of Trolly’s. He had us a backup line stretched and at the front door. I’m like … ‘This guy is an angel.’”
“We were very, very fortunate,” Kelp said. The fire could have easily spread to nearby shops.
“We could have very easily been looking at a parking lot down there,” he said.
“My question is: How long are we going to gamble on these things working out in our favor?”