A 156-year era comes to an end

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

At midnight Tuesday, a Hillsboro institution more than 156 years old will cease operation, as the Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District takes over fire and emergency medical coverage in Hillsboro, replacing Hillsboro Fire & Rescue.

The transition comes after Hillsboro City Council voted 4-3 in November to authorize the city's safety and service director to enter into a contract with Paint Creek for 2014. Contracting with Paint Creek instead of maintaining the city's own fire department was first proposed as a cost-saving measure by Mayor Drew Hastings in 2012, but was defeated then by a 4-2 vote. But with a different council makeup due to a couple of resignations, the measure was approved this year.

Paint Creek's fire chief, Bradley George, said last week that his department is ready for the new responsibility, especially since the district has had a presence in Hillsboro for more than a year after it moved into the former home of Hillsboro Fire & Rescue in order to cover townships surrounding Hillsboro.

Hillsboro Fire & Rescue traces its roots to Aug. 25, 1857, when the Hillsborough Fire Department was established. As recounted in a 2010 Times-Gazette article, “Originally, the city built a small structure on West Walnut Street to house the fire department. In 1876, the department moved into a new Hillsboro Town Hall on the corner of South High and West Walnut streets.”

The department was housed there until the building was destroyed by fire on Feb. 5, 1949. The department moved temporarily into the Caldwell auto dealership showroom on West Walnut Street, and also was temporarily housed in the basement of the Old Pants Factory. In 1951, the department moved into the old city building at the corner of North High and Governor Trimble Place, where the Paint Creek station now exists.

Hillsboro firefighters unionized in 1985. One of the points of pride of the department was the fact that all full-time firefighters, usually ranging from 12 to 13 in number, were eventually all licensed as paramedics.

In 2006, claiming unsafe conditions in the fire station, firefighters moved out of the station and began a three-year occupation of a modular home that was placed on Governor Trimble while a new fire station underwent construction on North East Street at the site of the former Washington school building, at a cost of more than a million dollars.

In 2009, a controversy arose over firefighter salaries, which in some cases exceeded $100,000 due to overtime pay. Salaries fell in subsequent years, with most firefighters making $60,000 to $65,000, although the mayor pointed out a case earlier this year where one firefighter claimed nearly $4,000 in overtime pay for a four-week period.

After the fire department took up residence at the new station in early 2010, the old city building was put up for sale and was purchased by Hastings, prior to his election as mayor, for $74,000. Hastings renovated part of the building into modern office space, which is now leased by The Times-Gazette.

When Paint Creek needed a location to serve several townships that joined the district, it chose the part of the old city building that was the former Hillsboro fire station, which Hastings was able to upgrade at a cost of about $85,000, which included wiring, plumbing, heating and air, mechanical, fire-rated barriers and walls. In September 2012, Paint Creek purchased the fire station from Hastings for $260,000.

When he was elected mayor, Hastings inherited a contentious relationship with neighboring townships for which Hillsboro had long provided fire coverage. One by one, township trustees grew frustrated with city leaders, and most eventually joined the Paint Creek district, which led to Hillsboro laying off all but six firefighters. After council's vote to contract with Paint Creek, the remaining Hillsboro firefighters received layoff notices effective Dec. 31.

The decision about fire coverage for Hillsboro was met with strident protests from some residents. After council's vote to authorize a contract with Paint Creek, a citizen petition was circulated, designed to force the issue on the ballot in the November 2014 election.

Gary Lewis, the city auditor, said Monday that he delivered the petition to the county board of elections last week, and had just received word that the board had verified a sufficient number of registered voters on the petition. The petition now comes back to the city, and Lewis said he will meet soon with Fred Beery, the law director, to determine the city's next step.

Beery said recently that he will likely follow the advice of the city's labor attorneys, who say that the decision to contract with Paint Creek was an administrative one not subject to voter referendum – a position that will likely end up fought in the courts.

Kirby Ellison, the former administrative assistant to Dick Zink, the former mayor, was one of the petition leaders. She said Monday that she has heard nothing official from the city on the status of the petition, but she was not surprised to learn that the petition contained more than enough substantiated signatures.

Ellison said she does not agree with the position that the Paint Creek decision was an administrative choice. The decision “had to go through council,” she said, adding, “Disbanding the fire department was not an administrative action.”

Ellison said of the referendum effort, “I think it puts the city in an awkward position.” If the issue reaches the ballot and receives the support of the majority of voters, “I think if the people of Hillsboro say they want the Hillsboro fire department, they should have it,” even if it means hiring new firefighters to go along with those who might want their jobs back several months from now.

Jon Harvey, an official with the Ohio Professional Fire FIghters union, said Monday that the turn of events “is a shame where it's ended up. I don't think there's a need for it.” He said he does not believe the move will save money for the city, and might even cost more money in the long run.

Harvey said he was not sure whether the remaining firefighters have lined up other jobs, but said a couple of them exceed the age limit to be eligible for fire department jobs elsewhere.

While the decision to contract with Paint Creek was a controversial one, it is part of a growing trend around the country. The advent of special-purpose districts - also known as special district governments - has exploded in recent years as governments explore more ways to combine services in order to save money.

Such districts – which, as defined by the law, do not include school districts - serve limited areas and are governed by boards that use public funds to carry out joint initiatives to serve various local government entities, such as municipalities, townships and counties.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2012 there were more than 38,000 special district governments in the United States. Fire protection represented the biggest chunk, with nearly 6,000 fire districts across the country. Also popular are districts devoted to water supply (3,522), housing and community development (3,438), drainage and flood control (3,248), and soil and water conservation (2,565).

Todd Wilkin, the safety and service director, said Monday that he and chief George did a walk-through of the Hillsboro fire station earlier in the day, checking inventory and equipment, and getting a handle on “the nuts and bolts of the transfer Tuesday evening.”

Paint Creek will make use of existing Hillsboro fire equipment, but will only use part of the new fire station, where the ladder truck will continue to be housed. Wilkin said that the new fire station could serve several uses for the city.

He said the Planning Commission will move into the building “where they can work at a centralized location, with their maps, drawings and information,” and that some administrative offices may relocate there. He said further plans are under discussion and would be announced later.

For his part, Hastings said Monday that he has no second thoughts about his push to contract with Paint Creek. He said he appreciates the service of Hillsboro firefighters and wishes them well, saying the issue was never about the firefighters individually, but about the cost of the institution.

“I tackled a problem that most of the voters I ever encountered wanted me to do something about, which was the fire department,” he said. “The best course of action was to contract locally, or regionally, for the service, which now puts us on better footing and poised to do things that a lot of voters wanted to see done in the city.”