April 4 Referendum Seeks Tax Money to Update Fire Stations and Replace Some Fire Vehicles in Prospect Heights

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Prospect Heights fire engine at a fatal condominium unit fire in Prospect Heights.
Prospect Heights fire engine at a fatal condominium unit fire in Prospect Heights.

As the Prospect Heights Fire Protection District faces more calls than ever before, its vehicles and physical fire stations are in desperate need of modernization and safety updates, according to Fire Chief Drew Smith of the Prospect Heights Fire Protection District. The district is asking voters to approve a tax referendum in the April 4, 2023 election to help update the station and replace several fire vehicles.

The 79-year-old fire station has not been renovated since an addition was added in 1992 and needs reconfiguration to accommodate the diverse, full-time workforce the department now has.

“We’re not asking for tax money to approve more salaries,” Smith said. “We think our normal budget can take care of our personnel needs, but it can’t take care of our capital needs because it’s millions of dollars and we can’t put it off any longer.”

When the station was originally designed, most employees were volunteers or part-time firefighters. The COVID-19 pandemic showed the need to switch from communal living quarters to individualized, non-gender specific sleeping areas and reconfigure the showers into individual stalls.

“During COVID, we were challenged and had to hope the disease didn’t spread,” Smith said. “Additionally, our workforce is going to become more diverse and we’re not prepared for it. We want it, but we aren’t prepared.”

Several of the department’s vehicles also need to be replaced, including two 16-year old ambulances and the 30-year-old aerial ladder truck. The district’s vehicle replacement plan has not been funded since 2009. Instead, vehicle purchases were made with reserve funds, which has now run dry.

The department hopes to combine one pump engine with a tanker truck to ensure water is readily available on the west side of town. Currently, an ambulance crew has to drive the tanker truck to calls, but the process has recently become unreliable because crews are busy responding to other calls.

As the station declines with age, firefighters saw their busiest year in the history of the district with 2,722 calls answered. The number of emergencies has grown by 49 percent over the last ten years, placing more wear on the vehicles and protective clothing of the firefighters.

The district is hosting an open house at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 16, 2023 and inviting residents to listen to a presentation, ask questions and see the station themselves at 10 E. Camp McDonald Road. All residents will also receive a special referendum edition of the fire district’s newsletter in the mail with more information.

The district had already implemented two cost-cutting initiatives as income has not kept pace over the years and the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the department’s budget. The district reduced personnel by 12 people, resulting in fewer firefighters on duty and a significantly smaller administrative staff.

“We’ve saved over $20 million in wages over the last 17 years and we’ve been very frugal with our money,” Smith said. “Our voters have been very supportive in the past and we ask that they be supportive again. By passing this referendum, it lets our employees know the taxpayers care about them and support providing updated and modern living conditions for their firefighters.”

If the referendum is approved, the owner of a $300,000 house would pay around $135 more a year, creating an additional $10 million in revenue for the department. Residents can estimate their tax increase costs by looking at their last tax bill, finding the fire district’s charge and multiplying the tax by 15 percent (0.15).

The last bond referendum was approved in 1991 and funded the latest fire station addition and vehicle purchases. In the 79-year history of the district, this is the sixth time voters have been asked to raise taxes.

The district’s Board of Trustees approved a comprehensive plan last year, which calls for restoring the fire station’s infrastructure. The fire station is significantly smaller than other suburban stations, standing at only 10,000 square feet in comparison to a 25,000 square feet average.

“We are not proposing to make them bigger, but we need to get the stations up to date and we can’t put it off anymore,” Smith said. “We know what our needs are based on the comprehensive plan and we’ve cut staffing to balance the budget, but we have no way to cut costs anymore.”

The fire station also requires a complete rehabilitation, including new roofing, plumbing, heating/air conditioning and garage doors.
By state law, property tax is the only substantial means of income available to a fire protection district. It is not a part of the city. When property values fell during the pandemic, so did the district’s tax income.

“Without resident support, we cannot maintain the quality residents have come to expect from Prospect Heights,” Smith said.



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