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updated: 3/23/2014 7:01 AM

Proposal for new Antioch-area fire and rescue operation, tax levy to fund it

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  • Antioch Fire Department and Rescue Squad at 835 Holbeck Drive in Antioch.

       Antioch Fire Department and Rescue Squad at 835 Holbeck Drive in Antioch.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • John Nixon

      John Nixon

 
 

Antioch-area officials say they will streamline the area's emergency services by creating a new unified fire and rescue operation and ask residents to help fund it.

The proposal, which could be launched within two months, would put the Antioch Fire Department in charge of all fire and rescue services covering the village of Antioch and Antioch Township. It would be overseen by a new five-member emergency services board.

A key component is creating the area's first tax levy for emergency services. Antioch Fire Chief John Nixon said members of the area's fire safety commission are beginning to meet with village and township leaders about placing a 25-cent property tax rate referendum on the November ballot.

If the referendum lands on the ballot and is approved by voters, the owner of a $150,000 home would pay about $140 annually to fund the new operation, Nixon said.

The measure would include separate questions for village and township voters, and approval of both would generate about $1.6 million annually for the fire department, he said.

"When you get right down to it, you need to have the money to operate it," Nixon said. "That's what this referendum does. It gives the fire department the money to operate."

The proposal from the fire safety commission -- made up of township and village officials -- would overhaul the confusing system of fire and rescue services in the Antioch area.

Currently, the First Fire Protection District of Antioch, the Antioch Rescue Squad and the Antioch Fire Department share responsibility for providing emergency medical service in the 37-square-mile area.

The fire district covers fire calls in the village and the unincorporated areas of the township. Rescue calls are split between the fire department in the village and Antioch Rescue Squad in the unincorporated areas.

Board disputes, ownership confusion and the ever-changing needs of fire and rescue contributed to a duplication of services in some areas and pushed leaders to create a unified system.

Next steps call for village and township boards to sign an intergovernmental agreement naming the Antioch Fire Department as the sole provider of fire and rescue service in the area.

The five-member emergency services board would replace the current three-member First Fire Protection District board, Nixon said. That new board -- made up of appointed representatives from the village and township -- would oversee the fire department operation.

The same intergovernmental agreement would require the village and township to provide any additional funding needed above and beyond the tax levy proceeds.

"This scenario makes for a more efficient operation," Nixon said. "Where currently two bodies of government have to approve all financial and operational aspects of the department, under this scenario, it only requires one."

The goal is to have the agreement signed within 60 days, he said.

In the future, adjustments could be made to the unified fire service model as needed, Nixon added. For example, he said, fire board members could some day be elected by voters.

"This is the model to prove that we can do a good job for residents," he said. "Then, as time goes on, things can be changed up as needed to suit the needs of the community."

The fire department would staff three stations to create an overlap of coverage, officials said. Two stations are in the village, which generates 65 percent of the fire calls. The third station on Grass Lake Road would serve unincorporated areas in Antioch Township.

A key aspect of the plan is using a tax levy to provide a constant and dedicated funding source for emergency services.

Currently, the village, township, insurance companies and private fundraising donations cover operating costs for the three emergency agencies serving the area.

Nixon said it's impossible to continue funding fire and rescue operations that way.

"The methodology that is used here (now) is just unsustainable," he said. "The receipts collected from patients using the ambulance service are not enough to fund the operation."

Antioch Village Administrator Jim Keim said the village pays about $66,000 a month to Metro Paramedic Service to staff village-owned ambulances at the Antioch Fire Department and to handle rescue calls.

The village recoups about 50 percent of the total cost from the patients or insurance reimbursements, he said. The difference, he said, falls on the local government to fund.

"But we're talking about life safety, so it needs to be funded," Keim said.

He said the village board has not yet been asked to review the referendum, but added he knows a funding change and discussion about the issue are coming.

"We need to find a way to fund this," Keim said. "Until then, it will put stress on the village's general fund and a shortfall will exist." One casualty of the overhaul was the Antioch Rescue Squad. The First Fire District announced last week it would not renew a contract with Antioch Rescue Squad, ending their partnership. The contract expires in May.

It's the latest loss for the 75-year-old volunteer-based group beset by problems that have undermined its influence and importance since May 2012.

That's when a sexual harassment lawsuit was filed by three female squad members. The lawsuit led to a state investigation that found squad members had unauthorized access to prescription drugs and patients were mistreated during ambulance runs.

The problems led to a fine, and operational and leadership changes. In May 2013, the rescue squad and village of Antioch went their separate ways after leadership could not come to terms on a contract.

In the letter sent to the Antioch Rescue Squad when their contract wasn't renewed, fire protection district leaders said they are committed to operating with one department under a single command staff and governed by an independent board. The Antioch Rescue Squad is governed by its own board elected from among its 45 members.

Nixon said the rescue squad operated as a subcontractor for the fire district, and the service wasn't renewed.

"The fire district board could have chosen any vendor they wanted to provide ambulance service," he said. "In the end, the First Fire District chose to go another way."

ARS Chief Brian DeKind said Friday the group will now shift its focus to community paramedicine, including wellness checks and home health care.

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