Why Wood Dale fire district will try again for a tax increase
The Wood Dale Fire Protection District relies on a federal grant to fund three firefighter-paramedic positions.
The SAFER grant covers 75% of their salaries and benefits for the first two years and 35% in the final year of the Federal Emergency Management Agency program.
But by Year 4 -- 2023 -- the FEMA grant money runs out.
With the clock ticking, the district will try again next month for a property tax increase that would provide a reliable source of funding to absorb those positions, maintain staffing levels and preserve the status quo.
"We're not putting on extra people," Chief James Burke said. "We're not looking to build a new fire station or anything like that."
Despite a rising call load, the district isn't looking to add manpower. Last year, the district logged 2,500 emergency calls, an increase of 40% from the volume in 2010. And yet the district has continued to operate with 24 shift personnel, or eight firefighter-paramedics for each of its three shifts.
"We have not added any additional companies or equipment," Burke said. "The referendum truly is just us trying to say to our taxpayers we want to keep the same level of service that they've become used to getting from us."
After two failed attempts in as many elections, the district will return to voters in April with a request to generate $1 million a year in additional tax revenue. The funding would put the district on firmer financial footing and enable it to replace vehicles in an aging fleet.
The same measure was rejected by 56% of voters in November.
The district is still asking for roughly $500,000 less than the initial amount sought in a March 2020 referendum bid. By scaling it down, the hope was that the tax increase would be more palatable to more voters during the COVID-19 crisis.
If approved, the tax increase would cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $106 in additional property taxes annually.
If the tax request is voted down, the district may be forced to consider closing one of its two fire stations in a potential worst-case scenario, officials say.
A study in 2018 determined Wood Dale -- a city split by railroad tracks -- needs both stations in their current locations to provide timely response to emergency calls, Burke said.
"If we continue to move forward and are challenged with these budget constraints," Burke said, "then our fear is that one of these stations is going to have to be shut down just simply because it won't have the sheer staffing to put in that in both of them anymore."
Burke and Deputy Fire Chief Deputy Chief Patrick Johl also lead the Itasca Fire Protection District.
The neighboring agencies share chief officers as part of a series of cost-saving measures. The district also eliminated a full-time administrative office position.
"One of the cuts we did was to freeze three firefighter-paramedic positions because we couldn't afford the salaries," Burke said. "So the SAFER grant allowed us ... to be able to put back those three positions."
But grants are not a long-term solution to the district's financial pressures, officials say, as revenue hasn't kept up with the expenses of operating the fire district.
Nearly 20 years have passed since the last time voters passed a tax referendum on the ballot back in 2002.
The district, which is a separate taxing body from the city of Wood Dale, gets roughly 95% of its revenue from property taxes, with the rest coming from ambulance fees.
The district is bound by tax cap laws, which restrict increases to 5% or the rate of inflation, whichever is less.
"For our taxing ability to go up, for us to gather more money, our whole EAV for the district, meaning the net worth of everything we protect, would have to go up rather dramatically," Burke said. "There's just no enough new development or even redevelopment of old properties to get us where we would be need to be. We would need hundreds of millions of dollars in new growth in order to capture $1 million a year as a fire district."
As a result of the financial pressures, the district had to secure a line of credit of up to $1 million to pay for sorely needed building repairs at Station No. 69 on Park Lane.
With the loan, the district is completing masonry repairs to a training tower after bricks were falling off the five-story facility and causing a "huge safety issue," Burke said.
"All were doing is repairing it enough so it remains standing," Johl said.
The district also is replacing a leaking roof on the 1970s-era station and a heating and ventilation system that is now obsolete.
"Those were really the three items that we just couldn't wait any longer on," Burke said.
The funding from the tax increase wouldn't reach the district until June 2022, the chief said.
The money also would enable the district to tackle some repairs that have been put on hold at its headquarter station.
"The referendum would allow us to do a lot of things here that we haven't been able to do for quite some time and again keep our staffing where we need to be," Burke said.