Fire file

PEOTONE — Looking toward the future, the Peotone Fire Protection District has announced plans to consolidate with Manhattan Fire District.

Saving taxpayers' money and providing the level of services residents need and expect are the two stated reasons Peotone trustees plan to ask voters to approve the consolidation with a referendum on the June 2022 primary ballot.

“Consolidation would reduce taxpayers’ bills while also strengthening our ability to provide a full range of services that our residents expect and deserve,” Peotone Fire Protection District President Brian Hupe said.

“As the region grows and evolves, we need to grow and evolve along with it. By consolidating our fire districts, we would be well-positioned to deliver robust, quality service over the long haul without having taxpayers pay more.”

In a news release this week, they said without the consolidation, residents in Peotone over the next five to 10 years would be forced to choose between tax increases or a diminished level of service.

Also, Manhattan’s district will need to determine how to deliver and pay for a consistent level of staffing and coverage amid increasing demand for services as the region’s population — and calls for service — increase.

Already — as Aug. 13, 2020 — the two districts have an agreement in which Manhattan provides a fire chief, deputy chief, battalion chief and administrative staff. According to a press release, that agreement generated approximately $600,000 in cost recovery and savings in its first year.

“As things progressed after the agreement, we talked and found this consolidation to be a logical step,” said Steve Malone, who serves as fire chief for both districts. “The communities we serve are better off over the long term with us operating as one district instead of two.

“We’ll be able to further reduce our administrative costs, eliminate duplicative costs and reinvest those dollars into hiring full-time firefighters and paramedics, upgrade our facilities and equipment, and ensure that our personnel has everything they need to serve the residents of Peotone and Manhattan proficiently and professionally.”

A shared problem

Fire protection districts throughout the region are facing staffing challenges since many rely heavily on part-time personnel. Increasingly, area chiefs have said, fully trained and certified firefighters, EMTs and paramedics are leaving for higher-paying full-time opportunities. Finding part-time shift personnel is therefore growing ever more difficult.

“The fire service has not been immune to the shortage of employees, and it has become an epidemic within the fire service as a whole,” Malone said.

Bourbonnais, Limestone Township and Grant Park fire districts each have sought voter referendums three times since March 2020. All three times, voters soundly defeated the referendums.

All three districts were looking to hire staff, purchase equipment and replace apparatus that was starting to become costly to refurbish.

“The bottom line is that our personnel are our most valued assets,” Hupe said. “Our residents want professional, qualified, trained personnel who are a part of the community they’re serving.

“By consolidating the two districts, we would be able to shift toward a more sustainable and predictable full-time staffing model by hiring men and women truly vested in the communities they’ll serve.”

Jeff Bonty is a reporter for The Daily Journal. He can be reached at jbonty@daily-journal.com and 815-937-3366.

Reporter

Jeff Bonty has worked for The Daily Journal since September 1986, starting in the sports department before moving to news reporting in 2002. He's a native of Indiana and graduate of Purdue University. His email is jbonty@daily-journal.com.