Overnight church fire has Norton officials pushing harder for fire and EMS levy

NORTON, Ohio - A fire Wednesday night destroyed the Father's House Church on Wadsworth Road in Norton, but it could have been much worse.

"If it was a residential structure at that time of the night, there could've very easily been people sleeping in beds," Norton's Mayor Mike Zita said.

But the fire that destroyed the house of worship is reason enough for Zita and many Norton firefighters to now speak out in favor of Issue 27 on the Nov. 6 ballot. It's a tax levy to support the fire department.

The mayor said cuts forced them to lose funds and operate understaffed. 

"Due to the budget cuts in last November, we ended up reducing the hours and closing the station at 10 o'clock at night," Zita said.

Wednesday at around 11 p.m., when the church fire began, authorities said there was no one at the fire station. The mayor said it took firefighters nearly 15 minutes to get to the scene. The result: a stronger blaze for firefighters to battle. 

Norton Fire Department's second in command, Mike Copen, said had the levy been passed, they could have been on Wadsworth Road "immediately and with six guys and two trucks."

Instead, Zita said it took about three times as long to get one volunteer firefighter on scene who then had to wait for back-up before fighting the flames.

Copen told NewsChannel5 one firefighter fell down a staircase when the structure's roof collapsed. A second went to the hospital later with muscle injuries to his side. 

That night, the first thing Norton Fire Chief Mike Shultz said to reporters was, "It's very scary for me because I'm responsible for the lives of these guys and we were within seconds of losing four firemen tonight because we can't staff properly."

"I respect the fact that we need to provide a service for the residents who live here, but I can't do that at the risk of the firefighters that are responding," said Zita. He also said the part-time work, lack of benefits and hours continually cut, forced the trained firefighters to seek work in other counties. Zita said they don't have the funds to train new staff either. 

He doesn't think passing Issue 27 is too much to ask for.

"If this levy gets supported in the polls in November, we will be able to go back to the 24-hours, 7-days-a-week staffing," said Zita.

The cost of passing this levy for taxpayers, he said, would be about $6.50 a month for the owner of a $100,000 house.  Zita said that would come out to about $78 more a year, on top of what taxpayers are already paying for fire and EMS. But he also stated if Issue 27 is passed, the 1988 and 1995 levies would be receded.

"It's definitely needed… We've been working very diligently in cutting costs and I know even in their (the tax payers) households everything's cut as well," Zita said. "It's just, with the funding that's getting cut from us and the cost of the old levies that we currently have right now, those levies are not enough to support what we currently need today to run the fire station."

Officials aren't the only ones to side this way. Diane Artrip found help at the church now destroyed, and when she went back Thursday to see the devastation, all she could do was pray.

"They need to have somebody on duty all the time because, it only takes a spark," Artrip said.

Zita said the tax levy was rejected by tax payers twice already: once in November and once in March. He's hoping this fire will be enough for voters to change their minds come November.

"I understand and respect the safety and so and the welfare of the citizens who live here, but like I said, on the other hand, we can't put the lives of the firefighters in jeopardy by sending them in with reduced staffing," Zita, a former firefighter himself, reiterated.

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