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MOUNT VERNON — In an effort to standardize the city's fire contracts with the townships, Safety-service Director Richard Dzik is urging all of the townships to increase their millage to 5 mills.

“That aligns with at least two of our other current contract entities, which are Clinton and Liberty townships,” he told city council members during a Police and Fire Committee meeting on Monday.

The city has fire protection agreements with four townships: Clinton, Pleasant, and Morris, all of which expire at the end of this year, and Liberty, which expires next year.

The contract with Morris Township has been at 4 mills for a number of years. Dzik said the previous administration had discussions with Morris Township last year, and the trustees indicated that 4 mills should be sufficient moving forward.

“We brought them a three-year agreement at that 4 mills,” said Dzik. “I met with them a few weeks ago and indicated that at the end of the three years, we're likely going to ask them to align at 5 mills with a few of our other townships.”

Dzik said that at 2.5 mills, Pleasant Township “pays significantly less than other townships.”

“I explained to them that that would have to go up,” he said. “We placed a provision in their contract that they must place a levy within the next year. I am only willing to agree to a one-year contract with them until we can get that rate up higher. If they do not wish to raise a levy, then we can spend the year separating our partnership, and they'll have that time to find another fire department to work with.”

Dzik said that he hopes to meet with Pleasant Township trustees in the coming months to “see where we settle on that.”

According to Dzik, 5 mills is a reasonable average for Knox County. Millage for the other county fire departments ranges from 4 mills (Fredericktown, which has an increase on the Nov. 3 ballot) to 6 mills (College Township). Monroe and Eastern Knox Joint Fire District are at 5 mills; Central Ohio Joint Fire District is at 5.5 mills for the townships.

In addition to discussing millage, Law Director Rob Broeren said the city has also done some “behind-the-scenes things.”

“Previously all of the contracts were similar but not exactly the same. A project that I worked on this summer was to go through all of our fire contracts and revise them so that everybody has the same contract, so there's no question about what we are providing to whom and where,” he said. “Everybody will have the same contract going forward.”

Broeren is also working to standardize time frames so that all of the townships will renew at the same time. He expects to align all of them by 2025 and have a five-year renewal period.

Dzik will look into the status of fire coverage for the Knox County Airport.

Regarding discussions with College Township for fire coverage, Dzik said they are on hold. College Township placed an additional 6 mill levy on the Nov. 3 ballot. Once the election is over, discussions might resume.

Dzik briefly mentioned the road contracts the city has with Monroe, Morris, and Pleasant townships. The Pleasant and Morris contracts do not have an end date, which Broeren explained is because the agreement to swap services is ongoing. Dzik will propose a similar indefinite contract with Monroe Township.

Mount Vernon resident Richard Miller led off council's legislative session speaking on police reform. Relating his experiences with police harassment in Colorado, he said that began a life of being vocal against police abuse and harassment.

“I am adamant that authority has to be accountable and cannot be abusive if it's going to be effective,” he said.

Despite his experiences and viewpoint, Miller said that he finds very little in common with those who have called for police reform in Mount Vernon.

“My premise is that the rule of law is sacred and that authority is important, and that law and order is important. I just want it done right,” he said.

He recommended that council members and residents “back out to the 30,000-foot view” and look at the ideological roots of the parties involved and respond accordingly.

Citing a positive observation of how local law enforcement “powerfully deescalated” a domestic violence situation, Miller said that he does not see the harassment others have noted.

“I just want to go on record and say you guys have got some good stuff here,” he told council. “Fix what needs to be fixed, but don't get taken up with agendas.”

Council business included the following actions:

--Appointing Amber Keener to the Regional Planning Commission, accepting appropriations, and transferring funds

--Giving a second reading to legislation fixing the number of hourly employees in the city and compensation for supervisory personnel

--Giving a first reading to legislation appointing Emily Morrison to the Civil Service Commission, creating a second assistant law director position, and establishing a rate of $10 an hour for seasonal Kenyon College interns

Council also heard an update from Joel Mazza about the status of the former middle school at 301 N. Mulberry St.

Financial Update

Auditor Terry Scott said that better-than-expected income tax returns the last week of September lowered the estimated shortfall from $1.96 million to $1.85 million. With the exception of safety forces, city departments continue to hold the line on expenses.

The city received its share of Round #3 CARES Act money, a little over $600,000, last Friday. Loosened federal regulations allow the city to use some of the money to cover safety forces' wages and benefits because personnel are handling duties relating to COVID-19 that are outside of their normal day-to-day duties.

Oct. 20 is the deadline for municipalities to file a report stating whether they used all of their CARES Act money or whether they have some left. Leftover funds return to the government for redistribution. Scott said that a quick calculation indicates the city will use all of its money as the wages and benefits associated with safety forces are over $2 million.

Mayor Matt Starr referenced the city's economic recovery task force and the revolving loan fund and emergency grant program through the Area Development Foundation.

Fifty-two percent of the emergency business grant recipients (11 of 23) are businesses in Mount Vernon. The fund has $30,000 left to distribute to eligible businesses. The Knox County Commissioners committed another $49,000.

“It would be nice if we could take $100,000 of that CARES Act money and invest it into the local grant program for businesses. Since March, we have lost 16 total small business establishments. Fifteen of those have been in Mount Vernon; 10 have been in the downtown,” Starr told council. “Some of them had trouble prior to COVID-19, certainly, but we don't want to see the business community that's creating the wealth, providing the jobs, providing the services, we don't want to see them fall by the wayside.”

Starr said that as the end nears for the CARES Act money, there will be a flurry of activity applying for the grants.

In the emergency loan program, $160,000 remains for distribution in 0 interest, three-year loans up to $10,000. Five of the 12 loans awarded were to Mount Vernon-based businesses.

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