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This November will mark the sixth time New Lenox Fire Protection District has placed a referendum on the ballot. The previous five times the measure failed to pass.
The district has known for years that their operating costs were increasing at a rate faster than their income from tax levies were, but in lieu of failed referendums Fire Board Trustee Joe Levey said the department has continued to tighten its belt.
“We’ve cut absolutely everything you can cut out of the budget,” said Levey, who serves as vice president on the board. “We do our own lawn maintenance, our own fertilizer, [and] a lot of our own station maintenance. We work on our own vehicles. There’s really no fluff.”
After the fifth failed referendum in March of this year, the board voted to close fire station 2 on North Cedar Road because of the increasing deficit.
“The hardest meeting that I ever sat in as a public official was voting to close a firehouse because heaven forbid someone dies across the street from that firehouse because we didn’t get there in time. That’s a gut wrenching thing,” Levey said about the vote. “...We take our position on the board at the fire district extremely seriously because it deals with lives.”
After public outcry and widespread concern about the closure, the Village of New Lenox voted to loan the fire district $450,000 — an amount that would allow the district to operate the station through the end of the year.
But only until Dec. 31. Without a passing vote on the referendum, Levey said the board will again be forced to close station 2 until a time when the district can fund it again through a referendum.
He said getting information out to voters this time around has been the top priority, especially after the district got feedback that voters felt like they were not well-enough about the previous referendum and the consequences of a failed vote.
“We want to be able to get all the information out to the voters as we possibly can,” Levey said. “...After the last referendum failed, we did a survey. We went to great extents to find out [why]” Levey
A passing vote will allow the district to keep all four of its stations open and fully manned, while putting money toward replacing some of the aging vehicles in the fleet and beginning to pay back the interest-free loan from the Village.
It will not, however, create any sort of surplus, Levey said.
“To live within our means basically... unfortunately there’s no other way to make that drastic of a cut is through closing a station [and reducing] manpower,” said New Lenox Fire Chief Adam Riegel.
“Limiting little programs just aren’t going to make a dent in that,” he added.
For owners of a $200,000 home, that increase is estimated at $135 per year. For a $300,000 home, the cost increase is estimated at $202 per year; and for a $400,000 home, $270 per year.
Since most homes do not fall into one of the exact values outlined in their referendum guide, which is available on their website, the district had a tax calculator added to the referendum page which will allow homeowners to get a more accurate estimate that is based on their actual home value.
The New Lenox Fire Protection District’s service area includes a vast majority of the New Lenox Township, which includes some neighborhoods in Mokena and Homer Glen.
In addition to allowing the district to keep Station 2 open, the referendum guide outlines vehicles that will soon require replacing, and programs that cost money to offer at low or no cost to residents including CPR and first aid classes, babysitting classes, car seat inspections and installations, the fire cadet program, soldier welcome home events and having an ambulance on standby at community and youth sporting events.
The district has recorded a 378 percent increase in workload from increasing call volumes. In 2010, the district received 2,802 calls for service, and in the last seven years those calls for medical help and fire calls have increased to 4,252.
Closing a station would trigger a layoff of about 25 percent of the district’s first responders, as well as some ancillary staff. Levy said having those first responders are crucial to keeping response times low and operating effectively and safely at a structure fire.
“That manning allows us to effectively operate at a structure fire,” he said. “That’s really what we base things on, is being able to operate at a structure fire. You need 17 guys to operate safely, and that’s the number we [currently] have.”
Keeping response times low is critical to saving lives because in a fire emergency every second counts.
“Within 4-6 minutes [of when someone stops breathing] your brain starts to die, your heart muscle starts to die. Fire double in size each minute,” Levey said “...If we can’t get to you in 5-10 minutes, your chance of survival are not so great.”
A common misconception Levey and Riegel said people have is that the fire protection district gets money from taxes paid to the Village of New Lenox. In reality, it does not because the fire district is a separate taxing body just like the school districts and library districts.
Since the closure and reopening of Station 2, Riegel said the fire department has received a lot of support from community members and local businesses willing to help out, and said he hopes people ask questions and educate themselves on the situation before the Nov. 6 election date.
The fire department has several information sessions scheduled where there will be a very short presentation, but the majority of the session will be devoted to answering questions from residents. For those unable to attend any of the sessions, Riegel said the department will schedule separate meeting times for individuals of groups unable to attend their meetings.
More information about the referendum including FAQ, the 2017 year end treasurer’s report, and tax calculator can be found at www.nlfire.com under the “Public Info” tab. Other questions or concerns can be directed to the fire department by phone at (815) 463-4500 or email at email@example.com.
For a more in-depth look at the district’s financial information, including monthly financial analyses, budgets, audits and year end treasurer’s reports, visit www.nlfire.com/content/fi