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updated: 2/20/2014 7:03 PM

Palatine Rural Fire District asking for tax increase

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The head of the Palatine Rural Fire Protection District said a drop in local property values is the reason the district is asking for a .05 percent tax hike on the ballot March 18.

Chief Hank Clemmensen said the fire district's financial situation is grim.

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"Last year we lost $300,000 in tax revenue from the previous year," Clemmensen said.

He said the district only took in $3.33 million from taxes, meaning the lost revenue was around 9 percent.

Clemmensen said almost all of the fire district's income is from property taxes. He said the assessed valuation of the fire district dropped 8.1 percent, from $445 million in 2011 to $409 million in 2012.

If property values stay at around $400 million, the tax hike would net the district $200,000 more per year, which Clemmensen said will be used to keep the district operating.

Should the initiative fail, the chief said they will likely be unable to maintain their current staffing levels, meaning fewer firefighters going out on fire calls.

He said currently the district has five firefighters on duty at all times so three people can operate the fire engine and the other two can drive either the ambulance or the 3,000-gallon water tender truck, depending on the call.

Clemmensen said the district's policy is if two firefighters enter a burning building for a search or rescue there must be two firefighters standing by outside.

He said if the tax hike fails, firefighters who leave will not be replaced, and the district may have only four on-duty firefighters at one time.

Clemmensen said they would maintain their "two in two out" safety policy, but would likely be less efficient initially at the scene of a fire.

"If I lose a person it's not the best scenario," Clemmensen said. "But we will make it work and we will make sure we operate safely."

The chief said it is not unheard of for a fire protection district's property tax base to decrease over time if the population is declining.

"In the old days when a fire department lost money it was because people left the community, so calls for service went down," Clemmensen said. "But my calls have gone up."

The chief said the district still has approximately 17,000 people in about 17 square miles, an area that includes two thirds of Inverness and most of the unincorporated area in Palatine Township.

But, he said, the assessed value of their homes has fallen significantly.

"What you think the value of your home is may not be what the government says it is," Clemmensen said.

If the tax hike passes, a homeowner whose property has a $100,000 assessed value would pay an additional $50 in taxes to the fire district.

Another financial consideration is that the district's 19 firefighters are scheduled to have 2 percent salary hikes in 2013 and 2014. Negotiations for the next labor contract will begin in the fall.

The chief said the last time the fire district asked taxpayers for additional funding was in 2005 when voters approved a 0.1 percent tax increase. He said they wouldn't be asking again if it wasn't necessary.

"It was a difficult decision by the board to ask the voters for a tax increase and we would not be doing it if we didn't need it," Clemmensen said.

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