Grayslake fire district cites declining revenue in seeking tax hike
Six years ago, voters approved a tax increase for the Grayslake Fire Protection District to build a new station, add to the staff and buy additional equipment.
But after fire officials froze the approved increased tax rate, they were caught short as home values fell and revenue didn't meet projections.
The combination has come to a head, they say, and voters again will be asked to bump the tax rate to provide funding.
"We've known for about three years this was going to come back up," said Fire Chief John Christian. "This is certainly the last thing I wanted to do as a fire chief and our board wanted to do, but it's a necessary thing to continue the service."
Voters will be asked to approve a tax rate increase that would allow the district to collect a total levy of nearly $6.6 million if property values don't drop. That's about a 20 percent increase that equates to an additional $53.33 for the first year on a home valued at $100,000, according to district figures.
The Grayslake Fire Protection District services 35,000 people in Grayslake, Wildwood, Gages Lake, Third Lake, Round Lake Park, Round Lake Beach, Highland Lake, Fremont Township and unincorporated Lake County, covering about 25 square miles. In 2013, the district responded to 3,671 calls, up 16.5 percent since 2009.
Since the last tax hike was approved, property values dropped 31.5 percent and nearly all property owners paid less in taxes each of the last three years, according to Christian. The district's most recent tax extension of about $5.5 million was nearly 9 percent lower than five years ago, he said.
"We've never recovered to what the original revenue was planned," he said. Continued loss of revenue could result in station closures for the 2015-16 budget year, according to the district, and response times would increase.
In the interim, a third station was built on Peterson Road near Saddlebrook Farms, a private, 55-and-over community in Round Lake Park to serve the vast southwest part of the district. But call volume has increased, staffing has not achieved the level discussed in 2008 and has been filled with part-time and contract employees, reserves have been drawn down, and equipment has not been replaced, the district says.
For example, three of the four ambulances have more than 100,000 miles, Christian said. One is on order, but a fire engine and water tender also needs to be replaced.
"Our staffing is bare bones. We've done everything we could to keep our costs down for residents," Christian said. "I don't want anybody to think we're going to stockpile their money because that's not the case."
Christian has been making presentations on the tax hike question. No organized opposition has publicly surfaced, but a group called Friends of the Grayslake Fire Protection District was formed about a week ago by Lou Frank, a longtime Grayslake resident, commercial insurance broker and risk manager for the district.
"They need to be funded. It's as simple as that," Frank said.
"They are very, very diligent in holding costs down."
The group is hosting an information meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 24, at the Warren Township Senior Center, 17801 W. Washington St., Gurnee.