Demanding an explanation, taxpayers refused to leave the township hall after the Liberty Township Board of Trustees pushed through a resolution Monday night to reduced the township’s fire levy from 5.6 to 3.6 mills. The refusal by taxpayers to leave so that trustees could go into executive session led to Administrator Micheal Schuiling being ordered by Trustee Melanie Leneghan to call for the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office.
Before the resolution reducing the amount of revenue collected annually to support the township’s fire department was approved, Trustee Michael Gemperline asked about the language of the resolution.
“This is a permanent change?” he asked.
Leneghan clarified it was only for a year and “that is just the legal requirement.”
Trustee Shyra Eichhorn stated the meaning of the language was still being looked at by the Delaware County Prosecutor’s Office.
“The way that it is written, it is permanent, and we do not know if future boards will institute it back at the (5.6 mills),” she said. “We can’t guarantee that the next board will change it back.”
Schuiling stated that the prosecutor’s office had asked for more time to investigate the language further.
Gemperline then motioned to add an amendment “that this is the resolution, provided that it does apply with the timeline requirements … and if it does not, we will revisit this.” He said he didn’t want to pass the resolution only to learn later that the prosecutor’s office answer was “no,” you can’t pass it.
Based on a conversation that day with the township’s legal counsel, Leneghan said she wouldn’t be able to second the motion to amend the resolution, because it was the only way the language could be written.
“We don’t have anything from the prosecutor’s office yet, so private legal counsel has prepared this knowing full well that we can’t go another year without it,” she said.
Referencing a countywide rollback in 2015 for the county mental health levy, Leneghan said that George Kaitsa, Delaware County Auditor, had walked the trustees through the process of a rollback.
“He actually found it in the newspaper as well,” she said about the mental health levy rollback. “This is the window. We have until Oct. 1, according to the auditor. All we really need to do is fill in the blank and we’re good to go, according to our legal counsel.”
The resolution had a blank space for trustees to fill-in once they decided on the rollback amount.
Eichhorn was ready to second Gemperline’s motion when he asked “to think about it” first.
Leneghan said Schuiling had met with the deputy auditor and came up with the numbers. She went on to say that he had spent several hours with the fire department representative and that the township’s legal counsel advised approving the resolution that night.
According to Eichhorn, who also spoke with the county auditor, Kaitsa would not give legal advice, and he wasn’t sure if the process for the rollback was valid. She said that he was also waiting for a response from the county prosecutor’s office.
“The only one saying that this process is the way it should be done is from private counsel,” she stated. “Never has George Kaitsa said he is supportive of this. He is trying to stay as neutral as he can and give factual information.”
Leneghan pushed to approve the resolution at 3.6 mills.
According to Eichhorn, the 3.6 mills will cost the owner of a $100,000 property valuation $110 annually, saving the taxpayer $71 annually.
“So, it would be a $71 savings per $100,000 (property valuation),” she said. “With a 3.6-mill levy, we will be operating with $3 million less every year.”
“What is disappointing is basically the fire chief has been told not to be spending this money but to be saving this money for our future capital expenditures, and it’s been built up to be used again,” Eichhorn said. “It’s been very clear based on the last 10 months when there was a discussion about going to a countywide EMS (Emergency Medical Services) and with what level of service you expect. That level of service, we’re even having difficulty to provide now.”
Gemperline rescinded his motion and Leneghan moved to vote on the rollback of the fire levy to 3.6 mills. Gemperline seconded the motion to which both of them approved.
Eichhorn didn’t get a chance to vote on the measure, because Leneghan rolled on through with a motion to go into a closed-door executive session.
Eichhorn, wanting to show the impact of the rollback on the taxpayers, had prepared a presentation that many in attendance wanted to see. Eichhorn decided to not yield the floor, and those in attendance elected not to leave as requested for the executive session.
Schuiling responded to the crowd’s decision to remain by stating, “We are in executive session. You will have to leave.”
Again, nobody moved.
Schuiling was then ordered to call for law enforcement to escort the residents from the township hall.
Two offers from the Powell Police Department, a Preservation Parks Ranger, and two Delaware County Sheriff’s deputies arrived with all of their car sirens and lights rolling as if it had been called in as a 911 emergency.
When greeted by Schuiling and Leneghan, the Powell officer was told by Leneghan that “they have to leave the room so we can have our executive session.”
The officer, caught off-guard by the situation, on the suggestion of Eichhorn asked Leneghan to use one of the other rooms for the executive session.
“This is a public space,” Leneghan said to the officer. “They can not commandeer because one trustee is rouge. This is where we need to have our executive session.”
The officer said she understood but thought it easier if the executive session was held in another room.
“No it’s not,” Leneghan insisted.
By the end of the night, the executive session was held in the old radio room of the fire station, and Eichhorn got to present her impact presentation to the taxpayers.
One of the people at the meeting, Melanie Farkas — candidate for Liberty Township trustee — stayed to hear the presentation.
“People want to know exactly what the impact is to the fire department,” she said. “It’s extremely upsetting that they are going to take money away from our fire department, but that has been their strategy all along.”
Bryan Newell, Liberty Township trustee candidate, voiced his opinion on the meeting.
“Whether it’s trying to do away with our township EMS or refusing to invest in the continued upkeep of millions of dollars worth of community assets and equipment, which is what they did tonight, Leneghan and Gemperline have made a shambles of Liberty Township government,” Newell said. “Their action tonight continues to threaten the health and safety of families in Liberty Township.”
Newell, as a candidate, is endorsed by the Liberty Township Firefighters union.
“Liberty Township is facing serious issues that need to be addressed. Solving these issues will take thoughtful and responsible discussion with the community,” he added.
Contact D. Anthony Botkin at 740-413-0902. Follow him on Twitter @dabotkin.