Student Senate passed the previously defeated fire-fee bill, which aims to fund the understaffed Athens Fire Department with a $50 opt-out fee for every student each semester and further advance fire education on campus.
Senate passed the fire-fee bill on April 26 during its final meeting of the 2023 Spring Semester. The bill’s primary sponsor, Dan Gordillo, a freshman studying political science and linguistics and the senate’s governmental affairs commissioner, said he conducted a random survey sent to Ohio University student emails that gathered 707 responses, 75% of which were in favor of the fee.
Gordillo said the fee was the result of conversations with Athens Fire Department Chief Robert Rymer, who met with Gordillo in October to discuss the fire department’s low-staffing issues.
The bill aims to provide the AFD with 10 new firefighter positions, although Gordillo and Rymer said a timeframe for filling the positions is not yet clear.
Concerns were raised about the university’s inability to pay the $50-per-student fee. Rymer said part of the reason for the student fee is the fire department can’t rely on property tax because about 50% of commercial property is tax-exempt, including university buildings.
“I agree that it’s a bit shameful on the part of the university that they can’t find ($50 per student for the AFD), but, for example, they just put up new laundry center signs that were totally unneeded,” Gordillo said. “But the best way to put it is we can’t twiddle our thumbs and wait for somebody else to do it. It’ll never happen.”
Rymer said the bill is crucial because the AFD is currently forced to make hard decisions when there are two simultaneous emergencies. It can either send less than a full staff to both emergencies or fully commit those on duty to just one of the two emergencies at a time.
“We have a minimum of four people on duty each station,” Rymer said. “That’s two per truck, so if I have a call to Gamertsfelder Hall for let’s say, burnt food … and another call comes in for a car accident or a fire across town, those guys have to decide to send one truck over to get things started until we wrap up here or we’re abandoning this call.”
Rymer said those decisions are difficult for the AFD firefighters. He also said deciding between putting a fire out or getting people out of a burning building is also difficult but luckily, he has not had to make that choice yet.
“We’ve been lucky for a long time,” Rymer said. “We definitely don’t have enough staffing to handle what they call high-risk, low-frequency events like structure fires, technical rescues, things of that nature.”
Megan Handle, a junior studying social work in the honors tutorial college and senate president-elect, said she has concerns about the bill’s sustainability.
“I recognize our fire department does need support, but I’m not sure that it’s necessary to come from students, it feels like a bigger issue than what we can immediately provide,” Handle said. “With what Chief Rymer said about how the money needed to fund a single firefighter is over $100,000, I’m just concerned in the long run it’s not a sustainable way to get a substantial amount of funding.”
However, Gordillo said that even if the goal of filling 10 new positions is not met, any number of new firefighters on the force is a step in the right direction.
“The fact of the matter is, even if 50% of the students opt out, that’s still $900,000,” Gordillo said. “That’s still about six firefighters right there. At the end of the day, Chief Rymer … said anything is better than nothing at this point because he would rather have five firefighters than zero.”
Handle said the bill, though it was passed by Senate, still needs approval from the OU Board of Trustees to be fully implemented.
Gordillo said the earliest students can expect to see the fire fee would be just before the 2024 Spring semester.
“We would have to submit everything by Jan. 1, 2024, for it to be on the Spring Semester,” Gordillo said. “So you’re not going to log onto your student center this fall and see ‘pay the fire fee.’ That’s going be Spring, maybe even Fall of 2024 but I’m aiming for Spring.”