Fox River and Countryside fire officials weighing cost-saving options
Six failed attempts at collecting more property tax revenue from residents have taken a toll on Fox River and Countryside fire officials.
The cash-strapped fire/rescue district has been asking voters for years to raise its tax rate in hopes of increasing personnel levels and replacing aging equipment. At one point, the request even included a plan to build a third fire station at the center of the 38-square-mile district.
Instead, officials have had to cut firefighter positions and tighten their financial belts after voters rejected variations of the proposal time and time again. Their most recent request -- a 60 percent hike -- failed Nov. 6 by 342 votes.
"This is disheartening news, obviously," fire board President Bob Handley said Wednesday during the first meeting since the election. "At this point, I guess we're left to explore all of our options ... including possibly trying again in April."
The margin by which the measure failed has narrowed significantly since the district's first attempt, Handley said, but the electorate also appeared to be "completely different" this time around. More than 9,000 votes were cast, compared to 2,000 in the spring.
Fire board members now plan to hold a special workshop to discuss how to continue operating on what they say is inadequate funding. Roughly 90 percent of the budget is funded by property taxes. At 27 cents per $100 of taxable property value, the district's tax rate is one of the lowest in the area, accountant James Howard said.
Reducing expenses, restructuring the district's staffing model and seeking alternative coverage from other departments are among the options that could be considered, Chief John Nixon said. Trustees also are in the process of deciding what to do with a property at Bolcum and Crane roads, purchased years ago by the district as the intended site of a third station.
After a referendum question failed in the spring, the board started looking into selling the property as a way to pad the district's capital reserve fund, Nixon said. A recent appraisal determined the site is worth about $246,000.
The nearby Fine Line Creative Arts Center has expressed interest in acquiring the site, but the nonprofit would first have to raise the money, Nixon said.
Trustee Charles Dunham said he would rather hold onto the land -- or at least a portion of it -- for future use. But even if a tax hike were to be approved, the district wouldn't have the funding to build and staff a new station, Nixon said.
"I don't have the ability to fund a fire station at that property at any time in the foreseeable future," he said. "So it just becomes an asset for the district with no usefulness at this time."
Trustee Tom Mollenhauer said drainage and site work would be necessary to make the property developable -- costs he doesn't believe district residents want to incur.
"The public has spoken six times," he said. "We just have to look at every option at this point."