Future of Knollwood Fire Department could be settled Tuesday

A debate between homeowners and officials of the Knollwood Fire Department on how to best serve the community's future needs at a reasonable cost could come to an end Tuesday.

Some officials say it makes sense to merge the Knollwood department with larger agencies in Lake Bluff, Libertyville and Lake Forest. Others say merger talk involving the small fire department in unincorporated Lake County should wait until 2019 - after voters are eligible to elect board members to the fire protection district.

"For any decision made, whether it's Lake Forest, Libertyville or Lake Bluff, the current board should wait for board members to be elected, not appointed," Knollwood Fire Chief Jon Harlow said. "It's what the community asked for."

A public meeting regarding merger possibilities is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, at the Gorton Community Center, 400 E. Illinois Road, Lake Forest. A merger vote could take place during the hearing, officials said.

Situated between Shields and Libertyville townships, the Knollwood Fire Department serves an area less than 1 square mile. The department handles about 550 fire calls a year from 668 homes and about 1,800 residents, officials said.

The department is controlled by the three-person Rockland Fire Protection District board, which is appointed by the Lake County Board. It has an annual budget of $640,000, officials said.

That changes in April 2019 because residents voted overwhelmingly - 363 to 85 - via a referendum to elect board members.

No matter what happens with any merger, the district board will remain intact, said fire district President Dan Rogers.

Rogers said the board will serve as oversight for Knollwood residents who pay taxes to the Rockland Fire Protection District. Board members will serve as a paper board only, and be tasked with negotiating service contracts with whatever entity potentially takes over fire services.

Rogers said the district began discussing consolidation with surrounding departments in 2017 to see if there was a way to save money.

"When I was appointed to the (Rockland) board and started to see the cost associated with running a fire protection district, when I started to see the inner workings of it, I started to look at other options because of cost," Rogers said. "Everyone has been talking about consolidation because of the overhead costs associated with running a fire district."

The discussions led to proposals from Lake Forest, Libertyville and Lake Bluff, he said.

The first proposal calls for Lake Forest to handle half the calls in Knollwood, while Libertyville handles the other half. The cost of fire service in the joint proposal would initially be $450,000 annually.

A second proposal calls for Lake Bluff and Knollwood to merge, Rogers said. That would require the merged department to purchase one or two ambulances in the coming years.

Either way, Rogers said something needs to be done to curtail rising costs for fire services in the Knollwood area.

"As a fiscally responsible trustee, I think you look at the people around you and see what's best for your area," Rogers said.

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