By Lauren Zumbach, Tribune reporter
9:54 p.m. CDT, March 18, 2014
Plans to buy new equipment and renovate fire stations failed to win support Tuesday from voters who rejected a request for a $4.7 million tax increase for the Homer Township Fire Protection District.
With all 12 precincts reporting, 53.41 percent of voters opposed the measure while 46.59 percent supported it, according to unofficial vote totals. The election results will become official on April 8, when the Will County Clerk’s Office certifies the election.
Fire Chief Robert Tutko said that without the extra funds, the district might have to cut back on some services.
“We can’t put the new equipment off any longer,” Tutko said.
The referendum question on the March 18 primary election ballot asked residents if the district could borrow $4.7 million to pay for the improvements. According to the district, the owner of a $300,000 home would have paid an extra $65 per year in property taxes for the next 15 years, when the loan would have been repaid.
Voters in the district, which covers about 22 square miles in most of Homer Township, Homer Glen and parts of New Lenox, Mokena and Lockport, last approved a tax increase for the fire district in 1995, when it was building a new fire station on South Bell Road.
The money would have been used to repair and replace old equipment, including an ambulance and the district’s only tanker truck. At 19, the tanker has a leak and is close to the age when national standards recommend it be retired, officials said. The ambulance is 12 years old, while most districts retire ambulances after seven years, Tutko said. The age of the vehicles also makes it hard to find parts for repairs, he said.
Funds also would have been used to renovate the district’s three fire stations, which have leaks and electrical issues, and replace firefighters’ breathing apparatus, Tutko said. A portion also would have paid off an existing loan.
Tutko said the recession kept the district from setting aside the money it needed to keep equipment up to date.
“When property values declined, so did money coming in,” Tutko said.
He said the district had taken steps to cut costs, including holding off on purchasing new equipment, delaying maintenance work at three fire stations and renegotiating a contract with the firefighters union to save more than $375,000 in 2013.
Turnout was light despite the referendum affecting tax rates, though some voters said they first heard about the proposed increase while filling out their ballots. All Homer Township precincts reported voter turnout of less than 20 percent, according to unofficial vote totals.
Several voters in areas served by the fire district said they didn’t mind a bigger tax bill if it meant better emergency equipment.
“I’d want them to have safe equipment for their sakes and ours,” said Sue Buhle, of Homer Glen. “If you ever need them, you want to know they’ve got the equipment they need.”
Others, though, questioned the need for more funds. “We’re all living within our means,” said Ted Neitzke, whose children live in the part of Homer Glen served by the Homer Township Fire District. “We give enough, and they should find a way to pay for what they need with what they’ve got.”
Source: Will County News