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Woodstock Fire/Rescue District plans to hire more firefighters after referendum approval

Woodstock Fire/Rescue District to use tax money for more staff

Woodstock Fire/Rescue District officials are planning for the district’s future after the successful passage of its referendum in the April 2 consolidated election.

Voters approved a referendum that will allow the district to increase its property tax levy request by 20 percent. The increase will bolster district revenues and allow officials to hire more firefighters, fill vacant administrative positions, and implement a capital improvement and vehicle replacement plan, district officials have said.

The request passed with 65% of voters approving it, according to unofficial voting totals provided by the McHenry County Clerk’s Office.

A homeowner with a $100,000 home in the district’s boundaries will pay an estimated additional $56.86 in property taxes toward the district. The district covers a 90-square-mile territory.

“It’s a relief,” Woodstock Fire Chief Michael Hill said. “Things were going to be challenging without the passage of the referendum. We are looking forward to being able to do the things we need to do and the things we want to do.”

The district’s fiscal year runs from May 1 to April 30, and it will levy for the increased amount in December. New revenue will be available in May 2020, Hill said.

“Unofficially, we are already making plans right now,” he said. “We discussed the priorities well before we went to referendum. Now it’s just a matter of drilling into the details.”

The first priority is to restore staffing levels to at least 14 people a shift, with the ultimate goal to go up to 16 people a shift in a couple of years, Hill said.

Right now, the district has 12 people a shift. The change from 14 people a shift was implemented when a new firefighter contract was put into place last year. The contract also included pay freezes through 2020.

Hill said the plan is to immediately move to 14 people a shift, while other changes likely will be on hold until the new revenue comes in.

“I think we can sustain that this year, knowing we will have additional revenue next year,” he said. “The most important thing is service delivery to the community.”

The restoration of a prevention bureau and deputy chief also should take place down the line, Hill said.

The district also must build its reserves, which Hill described as “nonexistent.”

Firefighter-paramedic Scott Wessel, who serves as president of the Woodstock Career Firefighters Local 4813, said crews are excited to see staffing return to safe levels.

On at least two occasions Friday afternoon, all three of the district’s ambulances were handling calls, which left seven people covering three fire stations with fire emergency vehicles, Wessel said. If a big call such as a house fire had come in at that time, there could have been a problem, he said.

“The more people we have, the more tasks we can complete,” he said. “There is also less of a chance of a building collapsing on us, being unable to perform a rescue and just general exhaustion.”

He added that after the administrative positions are filled, there will be fewer of those tasks assigned to on-duty crews.

“It’s tough running 5,000 calls with 12 people and doing the administrative functions,” he said.

Rising call volumes have played a major factor in the need for more staff, officials have said.

In 2005, firefighters in the district responded to an average of eight calls a day. Now, the district averages about 14 calls a day, which is a 69% increase, Hill said. Additionally, there was a 12.7% increase in call volume from 2016 to 2017, he said.

The district hit a record 5,010 calls in 2018, a 6% increase over 2017, according to district documents.

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