Three of the 15 fire protection districts in Kankakee County are seeking a tax levy increase through a referendum on the March 17 primary ballot. The districts say the move is the result of state and federal mandates that have increased costs.
Last fall, the board of trustees for the Bourbonnais, Grant Park and Limestone districts all approved measures asking voters to raise the tax levy to the maximum amount allowed by law.
A state law increasing minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025 played a major role in all three districts’ decisions to seek additional funding. The wage increase would see each of the three districts paying wages of more than $200,000 per year.
Firefighters working full time are paid $9 per hour, with paramedics earning $15. Volunteer firefighters currently receive a flat rate per call but that changes with the minimum wage increase to an hourly rate of $15.
Other mandates include the Federal Drug Administration’s requirement that fire departments replace their current cardiac monitors in ambulances. Bourbonnais Chief Ed St. Louis said they have replaced the monitors in two of the department’s three ambulances at a cost of $37,000.
All three departments must replace ambulance stretchers that are 20 years old with modern electric models that can be operated by one person.
“Society has changed in 20 years. People are bigger,” St. Louis said.
Another thing that has changed is the ranks of volunteers. Their numbers are dwindling because of the amount of time needed to complete required training and certification, Limestone Deputy Chief Austyn Bruno said.
It takes six months (250 hours) to be certified as a firefighter and another six to become an EMT. Then after certification is received, personnel must complete mandatory training each year.
Certification that at one time was good for life is being replaced by recertifications per the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
Here is a look at each department’s proposed rate increase:
For a median house in Bourbonnais valued at $100,000, the owners would see their tax bill go up to $283.33 per year, from $135.33.
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.
The station is staffed 24/7 with seven people, Chief St. Louis said. The goal is to add three more to all three shifts.
St. Louis said the district, which was formed in 1948, used a referendum in 1975 to start its ambulance service.
According to numbers run by accountants for Bourbonnais when researching whether or not to ask voters for a tax rate increase, St. Louis said, the district would go in the red by 2021.
“When we can tighten our belts [to cut costs], we do it,” Bourbonnais Board of Trustee President Randy Myers said. “I would hate to cut back ambulance service. It would make for a longer response time.”
For a median house in Limestone Township valued at $172,800, the owners would see their bill go up to $564 per year, from $338 — a 66 percent increase. The tax increase would expire in four years.
In a Daily Journal story last year, Fire Chief Mike Whalen said this is the first time the fire district has had to seek such an increase since it was founded in 1951.
Currently, firefighters are paid $9 per hour and paramedics $12, Whalen said. In response to the minimum wage increases, they will each increase $1 per hour every year until 2025, when paramedics and firefighters will start at $15 and $18 per hour, respectively.
Because of this, officials say, the fire district’s board approved at its November meeting to ask voters to approve a property tax increase.
If this referendum does not pass, several difficult decisions will need to be made, he said. These will include changes such as cuts in staffing and services.
Limestone held town hall meetings to explain the situation to its district residents. There were also several posts made on the department’s Facebook page explaining what the increase would accomplish.
For a median house in Grant Park valued at $180,000, the homeowner would see their bill increase to $623 per year, up from $415, a 66 percent increase.
The additional $260,000 in revenue would allow the department to address three areas which its leaders say are in crisis: apparatus replacement, staffing and equipment replacement.
Deputy Chief Shronts said according to industry guidelines, fire vehicles should be replaced between 20 and 25 years. The average age of Grant Park’s fleet is 27 years.
In the past three years, Shronts said maintenance costs have become a bigger issue. On top of that, the department must replace all its air packings at a cost of $150,000.
Grant Park’s district covers more than 60 square miles and 5,000 people.
Shronts said Grant Park has been able to secure grant money to replace some equipment.
“We are financially responsible,” Shronts said. “Grant money can help, but there are so many departments fighting for money.
“To save money, the local districts join together wherever possible,” he said. “It helps when replacing equipment or getting vehicles and equipment inspected each year.”
Dedicated to service
Through it all, the leaders of all three departments say the most important thing is providing their residents with service.
“The No. 1 priority is to provide the best service,” Grant Park Deputy Chief Matt Shronts said.
“If [the referendum] doesn’t pass this time, it will not be taken off the ballot,” he said. “We are not prepared to decrease service. We 100 percent do not want to decrease service.”
“Hopefully, you don’t need us, but we are there in your darkest hour,” Shronts said.