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Palos Heights Fire Protection District bids for first-ever tax hike

An engine with the Palos Heights Fire Protection District is shown in front of Station 1 on 123rd Street and Harlem Avenue. District officials say more money is needed to keep up with costs. Photo by Anthony Caciopo

Equipment grounded, station in poor repair

By Anthony Caciopo

Regional News Editor

The Palos Heights Fire Protection District is seeking the first tax levy increase in its 62-year history, an action officials say is necessary to prevent potential service cutbacks.

Voters within the District’s boundaries (which don’t necessarily follow the border of the City of Palos Heights exactly in all locations) will find a referendum on the April 2 ballot seeking, in true dollars, $38.27 per $100,000 of assessed valuation.

For a $300,000 house, we’re looking at a $9.30 per month increase,” said Fire Chief Kevin Doyle.

“For $400,000 house, it’s $12.50 per month. Even at the highest level, you’re looking at less (money) than the cost of a small pizza,” he said.

“We’re going to referendum, literally, just to be able to maintain the services we provide now—we’re not building any new facilities, we’re not buying any new apparatus even though we should,” Doyle said.

Palos Heights Fire Protection District

Rotted window wood is one of the problems at Station 1 of the Palos Heights Fire Protection District. Officials say more money is needed to keep up with costs.

Evidence of the need for new equipment can be easily found at Station 2, 13130 S. Ridgeland Ave.

There, with rust easily visible, is a fire engine that hasn’t moved for almost a year.

“Our oldest fire engine is from 1995 and it’s been out of service since last April because it needs $10K in repairs that we just can’t afford to make,” said Doyle.

And while the age of a 24-year-old fire engine might not raise eyebrows among the public, Doyle said the average life of an engine in “front line” service is 15 years, after which it typically becomes a reserve vehicle.

But the broken down vehicle in Station 2 can’t even perform reserve duties. Because of that, said Doyle, the District has already signed an intergovernmental agreement with one neighboring district, with probably others to come, that will enable the Palos Heights Fire Protection District to borrow a vehicle from its neighbors.

The funding problem has been brewing for many years, Doyle explained, and the four-person board of trustees has worked wonders with what they have. The District has an annual budget of $2,815,180.

“The main issues are that we, like all fire districts and all taxing agencies within Cook County and the five collar counties, are restricted by the CPI (Consumer Price Index) as to the amount of revenue that we receive each year.”

The fire protection district, like the school districts and the public library, levy their own taxes and receive no part of the taxes property owners pay to the municipality.

“There’s no question that the tax cap is a tremendous thing (for taxpayers), but one of the unintended consequences is that for special districts like fire districts whose only revenue is through real estate taxes, our expenses have far outpaced our revenue,” he said.

“Over the last 10 years, our expenses have increased 65 percent, and revenue has increased by less than two percent per year,” said the chief.

“This money goes to paying for our everyday expenses: Personnel, insurance cost, facility upkeep and maintenance, facility insurance cost. The same types of typical expenses that any business would have, we have also,” Doyle said.

And the chief said the District is far behind in salting enough money away for replacement equipment, which should be banked every year.

In fact, there’s been no vehicle replacement fund for the past five years.

Despite its relatively small size, however, the Palos Heights Fire Protection District definitely punches above its weight class.

“The amount of emergency runs we go on every year per capita is higher than anyone in our division—higher than Orland, higher than Lemont, higher than Mokena, Frankfort, any of them,” Doyle said.

“They run more calls, some of them, but based on our population size, we run more emergency calls than any of them.”

Some of the basic stats of the District and its squad of 21 firefighters/paramedics include: 2,250 calls in 2018, of which 1,394 were ambulance calls; 105 auto accidents; 335 fire alarms; 55 reports of fires; 27 carbon monoxide calls; 16 smoke-removal calls, seven vehicle fires and four water rescues, plus others.

Yes, even water rescues.

“When people are faced with any sort of a tax increase, there’s hesitancy,” said Doyle. “But our tax rate is lower than any fire district in the area. It’s 28 percent lower than our next closest neighbor.”

And, he pointed out, even if the voters support the referendum, the Palos Heights Fire Protection District will still have the lowest tax rate among all those neighbors.

“We’re asking to go from the lowest to the lowest,” said Doyle, his face showing no hint of irony.

Life at Station 1 on the southwest corner of 123rd Street and Harlem Avenue can be quite a bit different than life at Station 2, built in 2003.

Station 1, built in 1961, is suffering from persistent roof leaks, rotting windows, an original heating plant and original overhead doors that have gaps in the glass and gaps along the floors. Rodent traps are visible on the floor, just inside the ill-fitting overhead doors.

Cutbacks might include closure of one of the stations, which would increase response time to calls. It happened in New Lenox, said Doyle, until the village granted a loan and voters came back a second time to a referendum, which finally passed.

“Here you have this amazing community, that people live here for generations. Part of the really great makeup here is that we don’t have the heavy industrial, thank goodness. We don’t have Harlem Avenue completely lined with car dealerships and heavy commercial, all those types of things. That’s part of what makes this such a great community.

“But the opposite of that, for us, is that we just don’t have the tax base that some of the other communities might have,” said Doyle.

Here’s the wording of the referendum:

“Shall the limiting rate under the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law for the Palos Heights Fire Protection District, Cook County, Illinois, be increased by an additional amount equal to 0.195% above the limiting rate for the purpose of fire protection and ambulance service for the levy year 2017 and be equal to 1.018% of the equalized assessed value of the taxable property therein for the levy year 2018?”

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