Fire protection tops ballot issue

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— Supporters of a property tax increase to raise revenue for the Oak Creek Fire Protection District hope May 7 brings them the outcome they see as necessary to ensure safety and responsiveness in the district.

Voters will go to the polls Tuesday to decide the question of doubling the mill levy for Stagecoach and Oak Creek homeowners.

The fire district proposes to raise the mill levy from 4.392 to 9.9382 and put the additional revenue toward construction of a firehouse in Stagecoach, new fire and EMS equipment and training and emergency vehicles.

Friends of the Oak Creek Fire Protection District formed a few months ago to generate support for a "yes" vote.

Chris Zuschlag is one of many homeowners and property owners in Stagecoach who supports the mill levy increase.

He joined the Oak Creek Volunteer Fire Department in 1997, but the absence of a centrally located fire station made it difficult for him to keep his commitment.

Fire trucks often pull away from the fire station in Oak Creek long before volunteers from Stagecoach arrive to help with emergency calls.

"Stagecoach is too far from the present station to make emergency response realistic," Zuschlag said.

His frustration over missed opportunities typifies just one of the reasons supporters of a second fire station are backing a mill levy increase.

"We are using this election to educate the public to the fact that there are unmet needs," said Gerry Greenwood, president of the fire district's board of directors.

Greenwood is seeking reelection to the board. Zuschlag, Bernard Knott and Greg Hermann are also running for one of two open seats in the May 7 election.

Greenwood, who came to the board in 1996, stressed a mill levy increase would not bring instant solutions but instead lay the necessary groundwork to gradually bring changes to the district.

"It's not going to be a quick fix, but a beginning," he said.

Funds raised by doubling the mill levy would only begin to cover some of the costs of building a firehouse and meeting personnel and equipment needs, he said.

The rest of the money must be raised with grants.

Friends of the Oak Creek Fire Protection District sponsored two public forums in Oak Creek and Stagecoach to address the reasons behind the proposal to raise property taxes to better support the fire district.

Turnout was low, but many of those who came wanted to know why Oak Creek homeowners should pay for a building that would be constructed in and for the benefit of Stagecoach, Greenwood said.

A second firehouse, he said, would "make the district stronger" by ensuring the availability of equipment, vehicles and manpower in two different locations.

Continued development in Stagecoach demands greater fire protection, but the fire district cannot keep up with demands if its resources are isolated in one location, he said.

"This issue is not about the firehouse, truly," Greenwood said. "It's about the needs of the district."

District Fire Chief Chuck Wisecup said the election could potentially bring more diversity to the fire district's board of directors.

Only one of the current directors lives in Stagecoach.

"The district is more than just Oak Creek," Wisecup said.

Knott, a rancher near Trout Creek, hopes to earn a spot on the board so he can help diversify the board's makeup.

He said he is running because he wants to see some agricultural representation on the board.

Zuschlag said the board needs more representation of Stagecoach interests.

Wisecup, who serves as the district election official, said he expected the mill levy question might increase voter participation.

By Friday afternoon, more than 160 absentee ballots had been requested.

People who live in Stagecoach will not need to drive to Oak Creek to cast their ballot this year.

Precinct 14 residents can vote at the Morrison Creek Water/Sanitation District building in Stagecoach, and residents of precincts 10 and 13 can vote at Oak Creek Town Hall.

People who vote in the May 7 election must have lived within the district for more than 30 days.

Individual property owners and spouses can vote whether or not they live in the district.

The Oak Creek Fire Protection District has not been to the voters for funding since 1981 when the district was formed and a mill levy increase was first sought.

For a house with a market value of $250,000 and an assessed value of $25,000, the fire tax under the proposed levy would increase from $110 to $248.

About 30 volunteer firefighters serve the fire district, which encompasses 1,800 people within 265 acres.

Hermann said he was optimistic about the outcome of the mill levy question.

As to the outcome of his candidacy, Hermann said he intended to work with the board, regardless of a win or defeat at the ballot box.

Hermann, a consulting engineer, said he would submit a preliminary design project, with cost estimates, of the proposed Stagecoach fire station.

Many questions need to be answered as to how expensive and extensive the second firehouse might be, he said.

"They need some help to make it a really defined project," he said.

Because more homeowners than renters now make Stagecoach their home, people who live in Stagecoach have a greater stake in where their property taxes go than they did ten years ago, Hermann said.

Stagecoach contributes 44 percent and east Stagecoach contributes 23 percent of the assessed value in the fire district.

Stagecoach property owners pump a substantial amount of money into the fire district and deserve the same low insurance rating held by property owners in Oak Creek, he said.

A second fire station would eventually bring down the high insurance rating on homes in Stagecoach.

"We need to get the same type of lower rating for Stagecoach," he said. "Fair is fair."

Hermann stressed the benefits of the mill levy increase would not come immediately, but would gradually affect positive change.

"You're spending a little here to save a lot later," he said.

If the mill levy question fails Tuesday, supporters of the idea may be back in the fall to try again.

They hope an approaching fire season and possible drought might change the mind of people who are still skeptical of the need for more funding for the district.

Greenwood, who lives in Oak Creek, believes the outcome of the election lies in the hands of those who live in Stagecoach.

"What will win this election is the people outside of this 5-mile radius," he said. "If it passes, it will be because the people on that side of the district have taken note of the issues."

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