River Forest officials will be doing some research in the coming fiscal year to investigate the possible creation of a cost-saving, multi-village fire district in the future.
River Forest Village Administrator Eric Palm said cost would be a major component in discussing transition from a local department governed by the village to a “fire district,” which are separate entities that can levy taxes and would be run by a board of elected or appointed trustees, said Craig Haigh, the fire chief in Hanover Park, a village intersected by Cook and DuPage counties.
Palm said village staff could reach out to other communities that might be interested in joining the new district and eventually elect a board. An intergovernmental agreement would spell out costs and responsibilities of everyone involved, he said. River Forest has a similar agreement in place now with Oak Park and Elmwood Park because the three share a dispatch center. River Forest and Oak Park also share a fire truck.
“We have to do some digging to see if there are other people who are interested,” Palm said. If the village partnered with a couple of others, they could share vehicles, personnel, and possibly even reconfigure their stations and eliminate one.
Palm said a feasibility study would help determine the number of staff and fire stations a district might have, but River Forest has not yet contacted other communities about the idea.
In Hanover Park, the fire department is governed by the village, where Haigh said it’s one piece of the entire revenue base. It switched from being a district because the district’s tax rate wasn’t high enough to support fire services required by the community.
“It’s nice to be able to say ‘100 percent of the pie is mine,'” Haigh said about the district-levied tax pool, “but how big is the pie?”
As a home-rule village, Hanover Park has more taxing options to generate revenue. River Forest officials plan to discuss the possibility of becoming a home-rule community in the upcoming fiscal year.
When Hanover Park withdrew from the district, Haigh said there was a provision in the agreement with the union that employees of one entity became employees of the other and did not lose any seniority. Haigh said becoming a department also allowed him to use village assets, like legal and IT services. A district would have to hire their own.
River Forest Trustee Michael Gibbs, who sits on the village’s fire committee, said he thought the decision to bring up fire districts again next fiscal year was mostly driven by finances and not necessarily service improvements. The same committee discussed the matter in 2009, and the village first explored the idea about 15 years before that.
Gibbs said there was interest this time around, but the concept had to gain some traction.
“Does a little town really need that apparatus to just serve that little town?” he asked. “If those smaller communities can pool their resources, that’s a big plus.”