Danedri Thompson
[email protected]
It will take three or four years before the mill levy rates of the Johnson County Fire District No. 1 and the city of Gardner reach parity, city finance director Laura Gourley told members of the Gardner City Council on March 16.
Fire district officials are asking Gardner to fully consolidate with the fire district rather than hiring fire services via contract. Under terms of the existing contract, which can be extended through 2016,  Gardner residents pay approximately 9 mills per year. That’s about $173 per year in property taxes for the owner of a Gardner home valued at $167,000. If residents were under the taxing authority of the fire districts, it would cost residents approximately 19 mills, or about $364 per year in property taxes for the owner of a Gardner home valued at $167,000.
Prior to 2010, a city public safety department, which included police officers with some fire training, responded to fires in town. In October 2010, officials separated fire protection services from police and entered into a contract with Johnson Fire District No. 1 for services. As part of the agreement, Gardner turned over debt payments on a fire station and police building on 183rd Street to the fire district as well as fire equipment including trucks. Several former members of the Gardner Public Safety Department transferred to the fire district.
Under the terms of the original 2010 agreement, both the city would contract for fire services “until such time as there would be increase in mill rate to the Gardner citizens to join the district or until the time the city and district agree on a mill rate acceptable to both parties.”
The fire district’s assessed valuation, which determines tax rates, is growing faster than the city’s. In addition to Gardner, which comprises approximately 54 percent of the fire district, the district includes Edgerton and New Century. Both have larger industrial tax bases, but both tax bases are heavily abated.
Despite the district’s growth as a whole, the tax rates would not equalize until 2018 or 2019, according to a study Gourley presented.
Dennis Meyer, assistant fire chief, told The Gardner News in February that the increased growth could lead to the fire district lowering its tax rate.
“We’re trying to show the city of Gardner, because of all the extra valuation around us they’ll get to take advantage of that,” Meyer said. “We’re able to drop our mill levy 2 mills to get closer to what the city is paying.”
However, council member Kristina Harrison said Gardner citizens would pay more if the city fully consolidated with the fire district.
“We need to understand why we would do that?” she said during the March 16 meeting. “That’s the struggle. Why would we do that?”
Fire officials told The Gardner News that citizens would likely be eligible for lower insurance rates, because the city’s ISO – a rating used to determine insurance risks – would improve, lowering home owner’s insurance rates. In fact, Meyer said Gardner residents have already benefited from improved ISO ratings.
The city, Meyer said, could lower its mill rate to offset the mill levy of the fire district should the parties consolidate.
“But we can’t control what the city is going to do,” Meyer told the newspaper. “I would hope the city would drop their mill levy down.”
City and fire officials were unclear if Gardner citizens would be on the hook for current bond district debt. If not, that could lower Gardner’s fire service mills by as much as 2  mills. However, Gourley said county officials, responsible for sending and calculating tax bills, did not give a clear answer on whether that would occur.
Fire chief Rob Kirk told council that only existing fire district customers would be responsible for the current debt, however.
“We got that bond prior to a consolidation,” Kirk told the council. “That bond stays with the people we served at the time we got the bond. It’s non-transferable. If we were to merge, it’s the citizens that originated those bonds that are required to pay until it sunsets.”
Fire officials would like a work session between the two entities to hammer out finer details of a possible consolidation. Kirk said the contractual situation between the city and the fire district is creating a murky future for the district.
“We, as a fire district, our vision is obscured right now,” Kirk told the council. “We don’t know where we’re going.”