Why Bensenville fire district is asking voters for tax request
For the first time in its history, the Bensenville Fire Protection District is asking voters for a property tax increase to help restore manpower levels in the face of a rising call load and budget pressures.
The referendum push seeks $1.15 million in additional tax revenue to put the district on stronger financial footing. The funds also would enable the district to make critical repairs to two aging stations built in the early 1970s and '80s.
If voters sign off, the owner of a $200,000 house would pay about $126 more a year in property taxes to the district.
The funding request is the first on the ballot since Bensenville voters approved the transition from a village fire department to a fire protection district in 2006. In its infancy, the district was handling just over 3,000 emergency calls a year.
Now, the district is running 4,300 calls annually with eight firefighter-paramedics on every shift.
"We've never had manpower this low ever in the history of the district," Chief Scott Walker said.
Walker also leads the Addison Fire Department. In May, the two neighboring agencies started sharing a fire chief as part of a series of cost-saving measures.
Shortly after Walker took the helm, the district slashed daily manpower from 11 to eight firefighter-paramedics, sold fire equipment, moved office staff to part-time and froze salaries for all personnel.
The firefighters' union also agreed to delay negotiations on a new contract that was previously set to expire at the end of the year. An agreement with the district extends the terms of the pact until January 2022.
"They froze their contract because it was pretty evident to them that something needed to be done, and it wasn't just going out to the taxpayers and asking for money," Walker said. "They needed to try to help the best way they could."
But financial pressures remain. As Bensenville lost land to the O'Hare International Airport expansion and the future I-490 toll road, the shrinking tax base has put a strain on the district's coffers.
The district had been reluctant to ask voters for a tax increase and instead dipped into reserves to pay for operating expenses, Walker said.
"It's something that should have been addressed sooner than waiting the 14 years to get to the point where we are now," he said.
That leaves the district without the funding to tackle major station projects, Walker said.
"And then we don't have any reserves to do equipment replacement or vehicle replacements," he said.
Putting a new roof on the York Road headquarters would cost roughly $200,000. In heavy rains, the roof seriously leaks in some parts of the building, Walker said.
The north side station has the only staffed fire engine in town and no ambulance.
The south side station has two ambulances and a shift commander.
With the additional tax revenue, the goal is to restore a second, three-person fire engine for the south station.
If the referendum proposal fails, the district would make a second attempt at a tax increase, with the board's approval, Walker said.