Report: DuPage should aid fire district mergers

A consulting firm hired by DuPage County is recommending that the county partner with fire protection districts to investigate options for consolidation. Alternatives could include merging fire protection districts with neighboring municipalities or fire departments.

Crowe Horwath LLP made its suggestions after examining nine fire protection districts as part of a comprehensive review of two dozen independent boards and commissions county board Chairman Dan Cronin appoints. The county paid the consultants $85,000 to do the assessments in the wake of financial scandals involving the DuPage Housing Authority and the DuPage Water Commission.

On Wednesday morning, DuPage officials released the final in a series of reports by the consultants. In addition to the fire protection districts, the report looked at the DuPage Airport Authority and Emergency Telephone System Board.

Cronin said the assessment shows that fire protection districts “represent one of our best opportunities to achieve consolidation here at the local level.”

“We’ve already seen efforts throughout the suburbs to merge districts or share services and equipment in order to save money,” he said.

The nine fire protection districts examined in the report are: Fairview Fire Protection District near Downers Grove, Glenbard Fire Protection District near Lombard, Lisle-Woodridge Fire Protection District, Naperville Fire Protection District, North Westmont Fire Protection District, Roselle Fire Protection District, Warrenville Fire Protection District, West Chicago Fire Protection District, and Yorkfield Fire Protection District near Elmhurst.

Of the districts that were examined, Lisle-Woodridge, Warrenville and West Chicago are the only ones that have fire stations, equipment and personnel for fire protection and emergency medical services. All three districts are financially stable, the consultants said.

The six others are “paper districts” that raise money through property taxes and pay a neighboring fire department to provide fire protection and ambulance services.

The consultants said the Fairview, Glenbard and Roselle districts are showing signs of financial instability. “We believe that those particular districts need to prepare a financial viability plan,” said Bert Nuehring, a partner with Crowe Horwath.

While DuPage doesn’t have the legal authority to force fire protection districts to merge with other governmental entities, the consultants said county officials could educate and facilitate discussions among residents to explore the advantages and disadvantages of annexation.

“The county can and will play a vital role in supporting those discussions among all fire protection districts and departments in DuPage,” Cronin said.

The consultants said the county also could encourage fire protection districts to pursue shared services. For example, a district could save money by having a municipality act as its fiscal and administrative agent. The district would pay the town a fee to provide finance, legal and other services.

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