Fire district heads down risky path

Your boss won't give you a raise and the guy who has been cutting your grass for years — for whatever reason, you can't do it yourself — raises his rate to offset higher gas prices. What do you do? You find another gardener.

Too bad fire protection and ambulance service isn't as easy as gardening. Leaders of the Fox River & Countryside Fire/Rescue District didn't feel they could afford to pay the rate the City of St. Charles charges to provide the district with fire service, so they decided to go it alone. They treated this too much like a simple business decision, and the result could be disastrous.

Until now, the rural district — which serves Campton and Wayne townships and portions of Wayne and Campton Hills — has existed only on paper. It has had no equipment or personnel. Merely a board and a tax levy, with which it paid the City of St. Charles for fire service and Tri-City Ambulance for rescue.

All of that is about to change.

St. Charles has said it needs to charge the district more. But after several frustrating attempts to persuade fire district voters to raise the tax rate to something closer to reality (fire service costs three times as much just about anywhere else), the board decided to end its nearly 50-year relationship with the city of St. Charles. It also gave notice to Tri-City Ambulance (which also provides service to St. Charles, Batavia, Geneva and other areas.)

Instead, the district fire board wants to control its own destiny by building two stations, hiring a chief, buying trucks and ambulances and contracting with a company to provide both fire and ambulance service. At the outset, at least, the deal would cost the fire district slightly less than what St. Charles wanted.

But over the long term, such a venture is risky for any government body — especially these days. And it runs counter to the kinds of consolidation for efficiency we've seen elsewhere, as with East and West Dundee talking about joining police departments.

Fire district leaders firmly believe they should have stations within their boundaries in order to cut down on response times to the farthest corners of the district. But in the event both ambulances are in service at the same time, flexibility and secondary response time would suffer.

Unfortunately, with a station under construction and some equipment already bought, the go-it-alone horse is already out of the barn. The district should, however, resolve to reassess its direction after a year and consider returning to St. Charles. It has said it will go to referendum again in a couple of years — and it may want to move that timetable forward.

Should they see that their alternative to higher fees is inadequate protection with no cost savings, voters may be ready to reconsider their previous refusals.