In June 2012, the ersatz comedian/mayor of Hillsboro recommended to the Hillsboro City Council that the city contract with the Paint Creek Joint EMS and Fire District. The comedian/mayor said that the agreement would save the city an estimated $1,540,000.

If the recommendation was approved, the comedian/mayor said it would "dissolve" Hillsboro Fire and Rescue. It did. A fire department that pre-dated the Lincoln presidency was gone – up in smoke and mirrors, as it were.

"I have left no stone unturned,” the comedian/mayor said. (See https://highlandcountypress.com/Content/In-The-News/In-The-News/Article/Hastings-recommends-city-contract-with-Paint-Creek-fire-district/2/20/13541.)

That was then.

We learned this week, however, that those promises of million-dollar savings in 2012 haven’t panned out, after all.

At this week’s Hillsboro City Council meeting, we learned from Council President Lee Koogler (one of the few remaining voices of reason in city government) that the Paint Creek Board is demanding a $200,000 increase in the cost of services to Hillsboro residents.

During the council meeting on Monday, Oct. 22, Koogler explained that the city has been contracting with the Paint Creek district on a monthly basis. City and fire district representatives recently met, and the Paint Creek board voted unanimously to propose a nearly $200,000 increase to the city’s cost for fire and EMS services.

Citizens who spoke at the Oct. 22 were understandably concerned with the financial aspect of joining the Paint Creek district.

Specifically, citizens said they disagreed with the issue of paying both the current city earnings tax and then an increase on property taxes if the city votes to join Paint Creek’s district.

At a meeting held almost exactly one year prior to Monday’s meeting – on Oct. 20, 2017 – Highland County auditor Bill Fawley said that there would be an approximate 5.5-mill increase on property taxes if the city joined the district. This would be in addition to the 1.5-percent earnings tax paid by anyone who works in the city of Hillsboro and which helps fund, in part, “safety services” (e.g. police and fire/EMS coverage) in the city.

The first citizen to speak on Oct. 22, Phil Loudin, told council he had questions about the proposed legislation and what he called the “double tax” associated with the passage of the ordinance. After Loudin asked about the timeline of council previously voting against joining Paint Creek, Koogler explained that the last vote was held in March.

“I’m very curious how we go from March – a majority vote of ‘no’ – up to this point, where now all of a sudden this seems like a viable thing we could move forward doing,” Loudin said. “I don’t know what’s happened from March to now October, but as a citizen, I’m very concerned.”

If Mr. Loudin is a taxpayer and property owner, he has every reason to be concerned. He also has every reason to expect to fork over more of his hard-earned money to the city.

Koogler addressed the “double tax” question, trying to put a positive spin on it by saying that “When the current earnings tax was presented to the public, many years ago” – in 1986 – “that it was going to help provide for safety services within the city of Hillsboro. It was not in the body of the legislation, but I think that was how it was sold to the public at that point in time. The legislation that was enacted to create the earnings tax did not specify that it was for fire and EMS.”

I have heard that argument many times. It is based on a false premise.

I have heard that council’s crucial “swing vote” on joining the PCJEMSFD, Brandon Leeth, is using that argument to justify joining the district without acknowledging a double tax for the same services. He is wrong.

This is, to be sure, a most disingenuous argument. I’ve said this time and again: Given the former Hillsboro Fire Department's role as a departmental percentage to budget, it was quite clear that the city's intent for the earnings tax most certainly included fire and EMS services. To suggest otherwise is little more that political posturing. If, as has been suggested, the city earnings tax did not apply, specifically, to the Hillsboro Fire Department, reasonable taxpayers must ask: Were any of these tax dollars allocated to the fire department in years past? Don’t take my word for it. Ask any of the past or present city auditors.

And, if indeed, any of the current members of council or the comedian/mayor want to argue that the city’s earnings tax has not been funding fire and EMS services since it was passed – and not one red cent of the earnings tax has heretofore gone to the fire department – that only bolsters the former Hillsboro firefighters' argument that they were virtually self-funding – or at least more so than some other city departments.

This really is simple arithmetic, folks.

Former Highland County Commissioner Gary Heaton asked council on Oct. 22: “I think there’s a big concern about if we do give you this money – and we are giving it to you because we don’t get to vote on it, and we’re depending on you to follow whatever your constituents say or have told you – what are you going to do with the money? Is it going to be used wisely?”

That’s a great question. If recent history is any indication, it probably won’t be spent wisely.

Before giving another free pass to this administration, voters and taxpayers ought to demand a full accounting of all outside legal and consulting fees and court settlement payouts since Jan. 1, 2012. (A rough over/under estimate is $1 million.) Seriously, council ought to address this before seeking any additional property taxes by joining the PCJEMSFD.

And in defense of many taxpayers and voters such as Mr. Loudin and Mr. Heaton (and others), there comes a point when reasonable discourse simply falls on deaf ears and personal agendas.

Who, pray tell, has had the mo$t to gain by negotiating since 2012 with the Paint Creek Joint EMS and Fire District?

But do we have to endure a complicit city council as well?

The behavior of a few  on council this week was deplorable. They have ignored their constituents’ concerns. They have no regard for the potential double taxation that will result from joining the PCJEMSFD. They are either willfully ignorant or incompetent for the offices they hold.

If I were the president of council (no one wants that!), I’d have a difficult time showing up for the monthly circus.

There are probably a million good reasons for Lee Koogler to resign as council president. That’s totally understandable given the actions of some in city government. But with that said, I hope Lee continues as council president and I thank him for his integrity and public service.

Whether city voters – and taxpayers – realize it or not, Lee Koogler is one of the few remaining voices of reason in city government. I’ll include City Auditor Gary Lewis and three other honorable members of council (I’m sure they’re better off not being named here) in that observation.

Former Hillsboro Mayor Betty Bishop warned us five years ago that this day was coming. But no one listened.

When will you?

Rory Ryan is publisher and owner of The Highland County Press.