The Woodstock Fire/Rescue District is seeking approval from voters to raise its property tax levy by 20 percent to address staffing levels, capital improvements and emergency vehicle needs.
The district is its own taxing body, separate from the city of Woodstock. Its portion of a resident’s property tax bill is about 7 percent, which accounts for more than 75 percent of the district’s revenue, Fire Chief Michael Hill said.
If the referendum is successful, a resident within the fire/rescue district’s boundaries with a $100,000 home is estimated to pay an extra $56.86 toward the district in property taxes, according to district documents. State law limits how much a taxing body can ask for over its last levy request. The limit is 5 percent or the consumer price index, whichever is less.
The district last levied
$6.4 million for the fiscal year ending April 30. The district’s board voted in November to place the referendum question on the ballot for the April 2 consolidated election.
To save money, the district has cut its staffing levels despite seeing an increase in the number of calls it receives, Hill said.
The district last asked for more tax revenue with a referendum In 2005. The referendum was successful and resulted in an increase of about $90 for homeowners with a $150,000 home, according to the ordinance.
In 2005, firefighters in the district responded to an average of eight calls a day. Now the district averages about
14 calls a day, a 69 percent increase, Hill said. There was a 12.7 percent increase in call volume from 2016 to 2017, he said.
Hill couldn’t pinpoint the exact reason residents are calling more, but he noted that medical emergency calls made up the bulk of the increase.
“The medical needs in our community have gone up steadily over the last 15 years,” he said.
The district staffs its three fire stations with 12 people a shift – three people at Fire Stations 1 and 3, five people at Fire Station 2 and a shift commander who oversees all incidents occurring in the 90-square-mile jurisdiction.
That means if a call comes in at Fire Stations 1 or 3, the firefighter-paramedics working at the time either will take an ambulance or firetruck to respond to the call, depending on the nature of the call, and that area will be unstaffed until the crew returns.
“If they are out on one call, they can’t be out on another,” Hill said. “The station is empty.”
Calls can take longer if the crew must take a person to Northwestern Medicine McHenry or Huntley hospitals. Northwestern Medicine Woodstock Hospital downgraded its services in 2017 when it still was under the Centegra Health System umbrella.
In 2005, the department took 90 percent of its patients to Woodstock, and it now takes about 60 percent to Woodstock. A trip to Huntley or McHenry adds about 25 minutes to a call, according to district documents.
The staffing level is down from a 2005 minimum of 16 people a shift. The district staffed 14 a shift until last year, when a new firefighter contract was approved.
The contract also included a two-year pay freeze. In past years, firefighter-paramedics in the district – part of Woodstock Career Firefighters Local 4813 – received annual 2.5 percent raises. Lieutenants got
1 percent raises annually, Hill said.
The contract waived raises in fiscal 2019 and fiscal 2020. In 2021, however, firefighter-paramedics will see a 7.5 percent salary increase, and lieutenants will see a 3 percent bump, Hill said.
Other cuts to the contract include the elimination of a vacation day and reduced allowances for uniforms and professional development courses, according to district documents.
The district also has eliminated the secretary, deputy chief, division chief of training, fire prevention chief and administrative captain positions, according to district documents.
“No fire department should function without a second in command,” Hill said. “The [Fire] Prevention Bureau is critical.”
The bureau handles fire inspections for new and existing structures and engages in educational programming with the public and local school districts.
The district’s aging fleet is another cause for concern, the chief said.
An ambulance and a fire engine have been taken out of service because repairs were too costly.
Ambulances have a general life expectancy of seven to eight years. The district uses four ambulances that are 16, 10, 9 and 2 years old. Fire vehicles also are nearing the end of their useful life – the oldest engine the district uses is 17 years old. The vehicles are expected to last about 15 years, according to district documents.
Firefighter Jake Biederer has seen the effect of unreliable vehicles, he said. He was responding to a call several years ago when an ambulance broke down with a patient onboard.
“As we were going down Lake Avenue, it starts blowing out black smoke, bogs down and won’t go more than 5 mph,” he said. “Obviously, we can’t limp to the hospital like that. We had to pull over, ask for another ambulance to come over and transfer our patient to that crew. That took us out of service and took the other one out of service.”
The district’s in-house mechanic repaired the ambulance, and the district still uses it on calls.
“If the referendum passes, my goal is to keep or restore the things we have already lost,” Hill said. “If we need to make further reductions to make ends meet, it will have to come from services.”
Those service cuts could include decreased staffing and the possible closure or “brown out” of Fire Station 3, located on Raffel Road. The station has fewer calls come in than the other stations, Hill said.
A “brown out” means the district could take the station out of service during times of the day that the area doesn’t see as many calls, as opposed to shutting down the facility all together.
“It’s not a level of service I believe anyone in this community deserves or wants to have,” he said.
The chief will host a “Coffee with the Fire Chief” series through March. Meetings are at 7 p.m. Jan. 30, Feb. 13 and March 13 at Fire Station 3,
2900 Raffel Road. Residents are encouraged to attend.