As the River Forest village board continues to consider ways to reduce expenses, the board’s fire committee entertained the possibility Monday that the fire department become an independent fire protection district.
During a meeting called by fire committee chair Cathy Adduci to review the fire department’s structure and staffing, trustee Steve Hoke, who is not a member of the fire committee but who sat in on the meeting, made the suggestion. Adduci and others stressed that, while they support investigating the possibility, the issue comes with complications and some political questions.
Hoke noted that among the communities River Forest works closely with – four, including the village – there are seven fire stations (three in Oak Park, two in Elmwood Park, and one in Forest Park). That number could be reduced to five under a fire protection district.
“It gives you an opportunity to do what I’ve looked at for a long time, which is to dump boundaries,’ said Fire Chief Jim Eggert, who noted that River Forest already shares some equipment with other villages, and routinely interacts with other fire departments through its formal membership in the seven-department Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, or MABAS.
The suggested fire protection district could contain as few as two and as many as four to seven municipalities. Eggert noted that there is already a high degree of cooperation and even equipment sharing among municipal fire departments. He said that one local district includes seven towns, and that fire protection districts in some states include entire counties such as Orange, Los Angeles in California and Broward County in Florida.
“There’s nothing difficult about beginning a study, (but) we need board direction to do this,” said Eggert, who also suggested that River Forest might not be the only community pondering the issue of a fire protection district.
“You might be surprised if you talked to other municipalities. They might be at this juncture,” he said. Eggert himself came to River Forest after serving as chief of an 18 square mile, three-town fire protection district comprising Willowbrook, Burr Ridge, Darien and parts of unincorporated DuPage County.
Adduci called the district concept “not a novel idea,” and said she had no problem forwarding the idea to the full board.
While not against the idea, Susan Conti cautioned the board be judicious. “We need to have a thorough understanding of what a fire protection district is, the pros and cons of being in a fire protection district and what processes are involved in moving forward,” she said.
Among the possible cons would be a change in political control. Both Hoke and Eggert noted that the idea of a FPD was first explored by the village some 15 years ago, but was rejected mainly due to political concerns.
Eggert noted that changing over to a fire protection district would require a voter referendum and close cooperation between whatever municipalities joined with River Forest. Any resulting RPD would be an independent taxing body, with an independently elected board, like with township government. The FPD would answer to voters in each village, but not to elected officials in those villages.
Any changes would also require working closely with the fire department unions. Eggert also stressed that, whatever the decision by the village board, service needed to remain a priority even as cost reductions were explored. “You want to be able to maintain the (level of) services while not increasing the cost of the services,” said Eggert.