Sparks fly in Tri-Creek fire district debate
By Carrie Napoleon Post-Tribune correspondent December 9, 2012 7:08PM
Lake Daleclaria Fire chief Ryan Kennedy and captain Mal Feeley sweep up broken glass after extracation training at the Lake Daleclaria Fire Department Monday evening. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 10, 2012 9:48AM
LOWELL — Frustration: That is what supporters of the second attempt to form a fire protection territory in the Tri-Creek area say they are feeling after vocal opposition may have snuffed the effort before it had a chance to get fully off the ground.
Supporters said the fire territory, which was the same as proposed in 2010, would answer a variety of problems facing Tri-Creek’s emergency services. The opposition says now is not the time to add new taxes so other solutions must be found.
The Lowell Town Council plans to discuss the matter Monday at its regular council meeting.
Some officials, spearheaded by Lowell Town Councilman Craig Earley, and firefighters have been gathering information and testing the waters about residents’ position on the territory that would create a new taxing body and increase their property taxes by $35 to $51 per $100,000 of assessed valuation depending in which of the three townships they reside.
“Nobody is doing anything. If this fails, what’s next?” Earley said. The fire territory was the solution that officials came up with in 2010 to solve the problems facing the Lowell, Lake Dale and Schneider volunteer fire departments and Tri-Creek EMS and to retain local control of emergency services as the state moved to eliminate township government.
That effort failed and those opposed to the fire territory have not come up with an alternative since then to shore up the area’s emergency services.
Tri-Creek EMS has long struggled financially to remain in the black. The all-volunteer fire departments in Lowell, Lake Dale and Schneider are finding it more difficult to get volunteers to respond to calls during the peak hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
At least three calls in Lake Dale went unanswered by its own fire department in the past year and another five did not have enough people to respond on first call to get a truck out of the station, according to Chief Ryan Kennedy. Mutual aid response from departments outside the community occurs when the local department cannot respond.
In Lake Dale, firefighters raise funds to make up the $40,000-plus shortfall between what they receive from Cedar Creek Township and their billing and the department’s expenses.
Schneider’s Fire Department is bankrupt, Town Council President Richard Ludlow said. It relies on the cash-strapped town to pay for its debt. Funding for new equipment is hard to come by for all agencies.
Ludlow said he has not been involved in the recent effort to reorganize the territory but would be in favor of pursuing it due to the dire situation Schneider’s Fire Department faces.
The fire territory would give the region one bite at the apple to set a budget to run the fire and EMS services at the level they need to be, advocates say.
The plan would provide two full-time firefighters at each of the three departments to man the daytime calls. Volunteers would augment the service on nights and weekends.
“I’m not afraid to say that these emergency officials have showed us what they want, what they need,” Earley said.
Earley said it is necessary, if the plan is to work, to go forward as it was created in 2010, including the towns of Lowell and Schneider, and West Creek and Cedar Creek townships, excluding Shelby.
Reworking the plan to exclude all of unincorporated Cedar Creek Township, a version most likely to get support, would raise the tax rate and cost residents too much.
“We could continue at a higher rate but we are not the big tax monsters everybody thinks we are,” Earley said.
Opponents of the plan, including Cedar Creek Township Trustee Alice Dahl, said they know emergency services need help, but now is not the time to create a new taxing body.
Dahl said there are too many unanswered questions about what is going on in Lake County regarding the county option income tax, whether it will be enacted and the levies unfrozen, and what impact it will all have on existing taxing bodies’ bottom lines and residents’ pocketbooks.
The trustee said any time officials deal with emergency services it is a hot-button issue. Dahl said she is being portrayed as being against the emergency responders but that is not the case.
Following an informational meeting conducted by the Lake Dale Volunteer Fire Department, where support for the proposal appeared to outweigh opposition, she expected to receive a large number of letters from residents showing their support for the plan. So far, the office has received 10.
Dahl said the majority of the feedback she has received from residents has been against creating the territory. She also questioned whether the measure has enough support to pass on the town and township levels.
At least one Lowell town councilman, Bob Philpot, has come out against the plan. Others have taken a wait-and-see approach. The Cedar Creek and West Creek township boards are divided.
Dahl said she supports the firefighters and emergency responders but said officials from all three townships must come together and look harder for ways to solve the problems without raising taxes. Some possibilities that have been raised but not pursued include borrowing against the fire services, raising ambulance fees, improving collections and looking into how other communities have combined their ambulance and fire departments.
If the county does approve the option tax and the levy freeze is lifted, local officials may find they have the money they need to put more funds into emergency services.
Dahl said her office may be able to come up with more money for emergency services and other local taxing bodies may be able to do the same while officials wait to see what happens.
Those involved in fire protection say a fire protection territory would help secure the future of those services.
“This would answer a lot of prayers and a lot of questions,” said Jack Eskridge, former Lowell fire chief.
Shoring up fire and ambulance service in the region is a matter of public safety for residents, in particular senior citizens who tend to need emergency services more frequently.
“The one thing I would say is the people who are opposing it are not looking at the big picture. They need to look at the whole woods, not just the trees. It’s a matter of public safety,” Eskridge said.