Critical and crucial are two words often used by leadership of the Bourbonnais Township and Grant Park fire protection districts when discussing their financial situations.
The creed is to serve and protect, but the cost of providing citizens with that protection continues to climb higher.
Part of the fuel for that rise is the state’s law increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025.
Add in federal and state mandates — as well as aging vehicles and equipment — and you have a recipe for a budget shortfall.
Due to these factors, three local fire districts — Bourbonnais, Grant Park and Limestone — have referendums on the General Election ballot for Nov. 3 asking residents in each district to allow them to increase property taxes for two years to raise much-needed funding.
Grant Park Fire Chief Matt Shronts said his district is not alone in facing the problem of staffing and financial demands.
“This is not just a Kankakee County problem. This is statewide and nationwide,” Shronts said.
The referendum will be all three districts’ second request this year. Each saw voters in the March 17 primary election turn down their referendums seeking a tax rate increase.
They are again asking voters in their respective districts to allow them to increase tax rates for the next two years. After the two years, the tax rates will revert back to their current rate.
Property taxes and money from insurance companies for transporting residents to the hospital is how the districts are funded.
If these referendums are voted down, the districts’ leadership say cuts will have to be made.
“We’re all taxpayers,” said Randy Myers, the Bourbonnais district’s board president.
The district ranks 12th among the 14 fire districts in Kankakee County when it comes to its lowest property tax rate (currently 44 cents), Myers said.
Currently, the district runs three ambulances. With the population growth in the district — the Village of Bourbonnais is nearing 20,000 in population — Myers said a fourth ambulance is needed.
Prior to the March primary, Bourbonnais district’s last tax referendum was in 1975 and sought to start an ambulance service.
The Bourbonnais Township Fire Protection District is its own separate taxing body and is not connected with the Village of Bourbonnais.
For a median house in Bourbonnais Township valued at $100,000, the owners would see their tax bill go up to $283.33 per year, from $135.33, a 107 percent increase.
The Bourbonnais’ district covers 36 square miles and 36,000 people. Last year, the district responded to 4,182 calls — the second-highest call volume in the county. Kankakee was first with 6,756 calls.
Myers said the department expects to see that number eclipse 5,000 annually in either 2023 or 2024.
Grant Park trustees are asking voters to approve increasing the property tax rate by 51 percent to 1.0367 from its current rate of .6867.
For the average single-family home in Grant Park, it would be a $116.67 annual increase or .32 cents a day per $100,000 home value, the trustees announced in a release on Thursday. Currently, the owner of a $100,000 single-family home pays $228.67 annually to the district.
Chief Matt Shronts said the increase will allow the district to address three critical areas of the department: apparatus replacement, maintaining staffing, and replacement of broken and outdated equipment.
“It’s not a crazy plan,” Shronts said. “It covers the needs we have. We want to provide the coverage our residents need.”
The department’s 30-year-old engine was out of service for two months for “major, major, expensive” repairs, Shronts said.
Grant Park’s district covers more than 60 square miles and 5,000 residents.
Shronts and the trustees said if the referendum is defeated, the district will be faced with reductions in staffing between four and eight hours per day every day.
“This will mean that the fire station would be unstaffed during those hours and services will unfortunately not be able to be guaranteed,” he said.
“With challenges faced with getting people to volunteer due to mandates, certifications and the extensive time requirement to volunteer there is also no guarantee that the department can be supported by volunteers.
“Additionally, the fire district will have to consider potential apparatus reductions of needed apparatus due to extensive maintenance repairs.”
HELPING OTHER DISTRICTS
Bourbonnais Fire Chief Ed St. Louis said all departments in the county use auto aid when there is a structure fire or other big incident. It gives them the manpower they need.
Bourbonnais has seven people staffing the department 24/7, with the minimum being five.
The National Fire Protection Association said at least 20 firefighters are needed to respond within 10 minutes to such incidents.
“We are all working together,” St. Louis said.
But there are people who don’t see it that way.
Limestone Fire Chief Mike Whalen said he’s asked by residents why a Limestone truck is at Kankakee or Bourbonnais.
“We could eliminate it, but that would mean other departments would eliminate auto aid for us,” he said.
“I get it to a point, but we are helping each other out. We rely on each other heavily.”
Bourbonnais Deputy Chief Jim Keener said a decade ago, the departments in the county could count on each other when there was an incident using auto aid.
Due to staffing and covering their own districts, it is harder for departments to do that.
“Now we are getting aid from departments in Will, Iroquois, Grundy and Cook counties,” he said. “Back 10 years ago this didn’t occur until you called for a fourth or fifth box alarm.
Keener said now departments have to take passes to keep their own stations manned.
It causes the safety net to shrink when it comes to aiding another department.
“It’s not a threat. It’s a reality,” Keener said.