Fire protection districts wonder where money for new equipment will come from
By Mike Nolan firstname.lastname@example.org March 23, 2014 10:05PM
Chief Bob Tutko, inside the main station of the Homer Township Fire Protection District. The district failed to win voter approval for a multimillion-dollar bond issue that would be used to make repairs to the district's three stations and replace aging equipment. | Mike Nolan/Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 25, 2014 6:27AM
Bob Tutko points out that Illinois issues antique vehicle plates for cars and trucks still on the road after two decades.
The chief of the Homer Township Fire Protection District wonders if he might have to get a set for his department’s tanker truck — if it lasts that long.
Replacing the 19-year-old vehicle was on his wish list if voters last week had approved a $4.7 million bond sale, with money also earmarked to make repairs to the district’s three stations.
Also licking their wounds were officials with the New Lenox Fire Protection District, who say they’ll continue to look at “alternative funding” sources, such as grants, after failing to win voter support of a tax rate increase.
Tutko said that much-needed repairs and equipment purchases again will need to be put off, and the district will find more things in its budget to cut. Something as simple as child car seat checks, which the district offers to residents at no charge, might have to go because of the cost involved in sending someone for several hours of training, the chief said.
“Things are starting to break, and they’re coming in faster than we have money (to fix them),” Tutko said.
The recession has cut home values and, as a result, the district has seen $2 million in property tax revenue evaporate over the last few years, Tutko said. Also, without voter approval, the district is limited as to how much it can boost its tax levy, he said.
The recession also was a factor in halting plans for a major mall at U.S. 6 and Cedar Road, a portion of which would have been in the Homer district and provided significant tax revenue, Tutko said. Condominiums and apartments along Cedar also were planned.
“There was a lot of development that was on the books and then somebody turned the light switch off,” he said.
The New Lenox fire district, which hasn’t seen a tax increase in a quarter century, said the additional money would have cost the average homeowner an extra $7 a month and would have been used to cover ambulance service and replace old equipment.
The district will look at where it can further economize, but “we are at the point where there isn’t a lot left to cut to maintain service levels,” Marisa Schrieber, the district’s public education coordinator, said.
District officials haven’t decided whether to again seek a tax hike in November, Schrieber said.
She said the district already has tried to cut costs by having firefighters take care of outside maintenance such as lawn mowing, has sold surplus equipment to raise cash and to buy new gear scours sites such as Amazon and eBay to get the best prices.
In Homer, just about half of the 20-square-mile district doesn’t have fire hydrants, so the tanker truck is a necessity, although the 3,000-gallon-capacity vehicle is, because of its age, often in the shop for repairs. The district used to have two of the trucks, but the other one was retired because it had grown too long in the tooth, and the repair shop that works on the remaining one won’t guarantee its work because of the truck’s age.
“It’s basically rotting from the inside out,” Tutko said.
A new one will cost $325,000, and the district expects to find out next month whether it’s been approved for a government grant to replace the vehicle.
The district’s treasurer advised that $500,000 should be set aside each year to build up a fund to replace vehicles, maintain buildings and buy equipment, but was able to sock away just $25,000 last year, Tutko said.
Reworking the firefighters’ contract has saved the district $375,000 in overtime costs, but there’s only so much money that can be wrung out of the budget without jeopardizing safety, Tutko said. He’s offered anyone who wants to a look at the district’s financial records.
“We’re not living fancy,” he said.