The Bennington Rural Fire District, which protects a portion of Washington County, will convert from a rural to a suburban fire district after approval Tuesday from the Washington County Board of Supervisors and the Douglas County Board of Commissioners.
The boards unanimously approved the conversion in separate votes during a joint meeting.
Jim Lang, attorney for the fire district's board of directors, said the move to a suburban district was necessary due to the growth and development in the district's jurisdiction and the increasing amount of calls to which the department responds.
Bennington Fire and Rescue, which has 34 volunteer firefighters, covers 42 square miles of northwestern Douglas County and 6 miles of southern Washington County, including the village of Washington. Roughly 20,000 people live in the fire district.
In 2015, the department responded to 612 fire and rescue calls. In 2019, that number increased to 904. It is expected the department will reach more than 1,000 calls in 2020.
The change from rural to suburban would allow the district to increase property taxes to hire paid personnel, including a fire chief and paramedics. Lang expected the district would hire eight paid personnel over the next two years. He said the district hopes to hire a fire chief yet this year.
Volunteers, however, would remain an integral part of the department.
Jim Gottsch, president of the Bennington fire district board, has served on the department for between 25 and 30 years and has seen the change in the district.
“When I got on it was a little bit of town and a lot of farm,” he said. “Now, it's a lot of town and not so much farm anymore. That's progress I guess.”
The district, Gottsch said, has prepared for this transition.
“It's a big responsibility for us and them to make sure that we have adequate fire and rescue service when it's needed,” he said. “We've always tried to be very loyal to the taxpayers and only do what we need to do. We built a new fire station about five or six years ago in preparation of this.”
Douglas County board Chairman Clare Duda, who has served for 44 years with the Ponca Hills Volunteer Fire Department, recognized the difficulty in such a transition.
“I've watched a few other departments go through the transition from volunteer to combination and then fully paid,” he said. “It's kind of a tough transition as a rule and I wish you well with it, but it also seems inevitable.”
While the change was unanimously approved, Supervisor Lisa Kramer, District 2-Kennard, the only member of both boards who lives in the Bennington fire district, was critical of the process.
Kramer reached out to her constituents for input on the matter. Of those she spoke with, none were aware the fire district was seeking to convert to a suburban district, which could raise the levy 5 cents from 0.01355 to .06355. That would be an increase of $50 per $100,000 of property value per year of a property owner.
“There was zero transparency in the process,” Kramer said. “Although most people expected it, knowing that they built the largest and most expensive fire station in the state of Nebraska that included living quarters, most people expected that this would be coming, but nobody knew.”
Counties can levy up to 50 cents. The 5-cent increase would represent 10 percent of the county's taxing authority, which Kramer said is significant.
“That is significant enough that the route that people believe they should have taken in order to get permission to transition to a suburban district was to make it a vote of the people,” she said. “There was a primary election just one month ago. The rural fire board could have opted to place this issue on their ballot and actually make their case to the people and represent the people and justify the need. I believe they would have received overwhelming support. I honestly do based on the input I've received from my taxpayers in my district. But they didn't do that.”
Instead, the fire district board approved a resolution through a private ballot during a meeting in which 17 people were in attendance.
“If I were to hazard a guess, I would guess that the majority of those in attendance were rural fire department volunteers,” Kramer said. “That doesn't reflect well on the transparency of the process. It doesn't change necessarily the need, but it does reflect poorly on the process.”
Kramer urged the Douglas County commissioners to take an active role in the fire district's budget process.
“Because we don't have the opportunity to vote for you as Douglas County board members when we reside in Washington County, I implore you to use your fiduciary responsibility to be very involved in the budget process for this department moving forward to make sure they are using our tax dollars wisely,” she said.
No one from the public spoke for or against the issue.