The Wonder Lake Fire Protection District is asking voters to approve a referendum March 17 election ballot increasing its property tax levy.
An average homeowner with a $100,000 home currently pays $153 in taxes to the Wonder Lake Fire Protection District. If the referendum is successful, that would go up by $33, so the homeowner would pay $186.
The amount of taxes currently able to be levied for the fire district is $963,994. The amount the WLFPD is asking for is $1,152,054.
One of the reasons this increase is needed, Wonder Lake Fire Chief Mike Weber said, is because the department is dealing with a 52 percent increase in general and workers compensation insurance. These are based on the pay of the worker, and will increase significantly when minimum wage becomes $15 an hour, Weber said.
The minimum wage increased this year, and per state law, will continue to go up until 2025, when it hits that $15 mark.
With the current tax rate, Weber said, the fire district’s budget will be consumed by payroll, leaving them with a deficit for operations.
“We’ve already started to raise the minimum wage,” Weber said. “We’re only going to go up.”
Calls to the fire protection district have gone up by 43 percent over the past 19 years. Weber attributes this to having more people, especially older people, living in Wonder Lake.
“What we want to do is increase our staffing from three members to four members,” Weber said. All of Wonder Lake’s firefighters are part-time.
Having only three members causes the fire district to have what Weber calls a “jump crew,” meaning if there’s a call for an ambulance, all three employees go to the ambulance call, and if there’s a fire call, all three go to the fire call.
“That’s leaving our community with nobody in town,” Weber said. In those cases, the WLFPD has to use the help of mutual aid departments to cover other calls.
This increases the time people have to wait in an emergency situation, Weber said.
“We all know the brain can only do without oxygen four to six minutes before [there’s] permanent damage,” Weber said.
If people are waiting for an ambulance or fire truck to come from McHenry or Richmond, for instance, Weber said, that could mean a 12- to 15-minute wait.
“Fires double in size every 30 seconds,” Weber pointed out. Hiring a fourth person would allow the department to have two people on an ambulance and two on a fire truck, if need be.
In addition, Weber said, the district’s equipment is aging. One of their front line engines is 26 years old.
“It is a safety concern to us. Obviously, there’s new ways to do things,” Weber said.
Engines made now are safer in the event of a rollover and have more protection for the people in the vehicles. With newer equipment, maintenance on the vehicles would go down, and the district could stop putting more money it can’t afford into these engines, Weber said.
If the referendum gets approved, the fire district won’t actually see any additional money for a year, but after that year Weber said they would plan to put the bid out for a new engine. If this referendum is not approved, Weber said, this could mean potentially lowering their on-duty personnel, as well as reducing manning equipment.
Weber said there have been things the fire district has done to lower costs for the community, such as applying for state grants. In addition, they have minimized their command staff by not replacing people when they resigned.