Sept. 04--Every work day, Richard Howard buttons up a navy-blue uniform shirt that says Franklin Township Fire on one side, Chief on the other, and wonders what his department will look like next year.
He wonders whether there will be a department the year after that.
"I'm a second-generation township resident, and I started in this profession as a volunteer firefighter," Howard said. "It was bad when I first came on, and then it got better, and now in the last few years it's getting bad again."
Franklin is one of five townships in Franklin County on the November ballot seeking a fire levy. Chiefs in the small departments that serve those townships say they are being hit hard by cuts in state funding and an increase in emergency runs as people who once might have taken their complaint to a doctor become more likely to call 911.
The departments also are stretched thin because of mutual-aid agreements with Columbus; they say they cross the border to help out more often than their big-city counterparts. In 2012 and 2013, for example, Jefferson Township firefighters made runs into Columbus 979 times. Columbus firefighters returned the favor 65 times.
As voters reject township property-tax requests, Columbus fire officials are becoming alarmed that the aid won't be there on the city's growing fringes.
Franklin, Brown and Jefferson townships are on the ballot again after voters rejected fire levies in the past year. Plain Township, which serves New Albany and the surrounding area, is asking for more money, and Jackson Township, which serves Grove City and the surrounding township, is asking for its first increase in fire funds in 23 years.
Howard already has been mothballing equipment and reducing the number of firefighters he sends on runs. Layoffs are next. He has heard rumblings that the township might do away with the 39-person department.
"Township budgets don't increase as population increases like in cities that have an income tax, so they don't have the ability to grow their finances to match their population," said Jefferson Township Battalion Chief Brad Shull. "In a township, the only way you can ask for new money is to go back for property-tax money."
Columbus has been reaching out to township chiefs to see what they will do if the levies fail in November.
"We've definitely been talking about it internally," said Columbus Battalion Chief Mike Vedra. " We are waiting to see what happens, and if these levies fail how that will impact the services those townships can provide."
A Columbus assistant fire chief attended a Brown Township meeting in June and told trustees and residents that if they dissolved their agreement with Norwich Township, which they pay for fire service, they couldn't afford the city's fire service.
Chiefs in Franklin, Jefferson and Plain townships found the exchange ironic because Columbus has grown increasingly reliant on them to provide emergency services to nearby Columbus residents.
Jefferson Township made about 2,800 emergency runs in 2012 and 2013. Of those, 937 were into Columbus, according to data provided by the township. Columbus made 65 total runs into Jefferson Township during those two years.
The Dispatch asked townships to provide their run information two weeks ago. Jefferson was the only township that provided them. Columbus could not provide numbers showing how many times the townships responded to calls for help in the city but did provide run totals from Columbus to the townships.
In many years, Franklin Township firefighters have made nearly as many emergency runs into Columbus as within the township, Howard said. Fire officials in Columbus and Franklin said they know that's true based on day-to-day emergency calls.
Without help from Plain Township, it would take Columbus 15 to 18 minutes to respond to a heart attack or house fire in the most northeastern part of the city, Columbus fire officials said.
Area departments help one another through mutual-aid agreements. Sometimes, city or township firefighters are the closest to an emergency despite the boundaries on a map.
Township fire chiefs said they honor the agreements because Columbus can provide help with ladder trucks, boats or its bomb squad, and can handle large emergency scenes and rescues if needed.
But the demands for help in Columbus are starting to infringe on the level of service the townships can provide their own residents, the chiefs say. Some township chiefs said the city should consider adding more fire stations.
"On the edge of the district in Columbus, those are the danger zones," Jefferson Township's Shull said. "But departments cannot do it all by themselves -- like we rely on Plain and Mifflin townships -- but there needs to be a balance."
Columbus' population growth and geographic expansion have stretched those good-will agreements. Since 1994 the city has annexed 24 square miles, triple the size of Franklin Township.
Between 2000 and 2010, Columbus added about 76,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census. The data show that an additional 45,000 people had left the city's core and moved to outer sections of Columbus.
Fire and emergency runs have increased about 20 percent to 144,000 last year, while the city has nearly the same number of firefighters as it did a decade ago.
Vedra, the Columbus battalion chief, said there are no talks about drastically increasing the number of firefighters, and any new fire stations would have to be discussed with Mayor Michael B. Coleman.
For now, township chiefs hope that voters will approve the levies. The only other option is to make cuts to plug deficits, they say.
"I'd hate to be leaving as a fire chief and leave us in a bad spot," Howard said. "We're fighting tooth and nail, and you don't know what to say or do because the residents can only afford what they can afford."
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