A special meeting of the Saline County Board was held Wednesday evening to discuss the options available for county fire protection if the City of Harrisburg follows through on its intent to stop responding to fire calls in the county effective July 1, 2013.
Eldorado Fire Chief Mike McKinnies said the first time Harrisburg does not respond to a mutual aid call from other departments who are responding to calls in the county he would petition the Southern Illinois Coal Belt Association to drop Harrisburg from its membership.
“We all belong to the Southern Illinois Coal Belt Association, within our by laws it clearly states that each department shall and will provide mutual aid, period,” McKinnies said, reading from a prepared statement he distributed to the media.
Present at the meeting were representatives from area fire departments and their chiefs.
McKinnies said, "Several of fire departments are here tonight that do not have a per say budget to operate on. They charge $2,000 to the home and property owners outside their cities who then add the cost to their insurance policies. These departments use that money to operate on. If you form a fire protection district then that money is gone and the departments cease to exist."
McKinnies added that if the county cuts a check to the city of Harrisburg for the money council has requested for reimbursement of fire services this year — roughly $20,000 — they should not put away their checkbook. Other municipalities will ask for compensation for outside calls as well. He said that Eldorado and Carrier Mills made more outside calls than Harrisburg this year.
It is often said that Williamson County has a successful fire protection district. But McKinnies feels they have the industry and population to support it, whereas Saline County does not. "Williamson County has approximately 22,000 people living outside their cities. Saline County has only 8,000. Williamson County has 10 to 15 times the business and industry outside their cities. It took them 20 years just to buy their first new pumper."
State statute, according to McKinnies allows a board to assess a tax of only .003 on the assessed value of property outside of all the corporate limits to form a fire protection district.
“That would bring you about enough money to buy a bumper,” Board member Gary Siebert said.
McKinnies suggested a possibility of residents within Harrisburg Township float a referendum to form Harrisburg Township Fire Protection District. The district board could then contract with whomever it pleased to provide fire protection. "Presently 95 per cent of the area is served by Harrisburg FD and 5 per cent by Carrier Mills FD. The rest of the fire departments would still provide services as they stand at this time. Any area without fire protection in the rest of the county would receive it from the nearest department, whether it be Equality, Carrier Mills, Galatia, Stonefort or Eldorado."
Page 2 of 3 - Chris Drone, a member of the Saline County Farm Bureau, asked why the city did not attempt to collect the $2,000 per call it is owed for outside calls from the property owners themselves. He said that other departments do.
Carrier Mills Fire Chief Jerry Choate said one challenge to this system is people spending their insurance settlement money without setting aside the $2,000 for the bill for the fire call.
County resident Scott Berry suggested if the $2,000 charged for out of city calls is not enough to cover expenses for those fire calls that the amount charged be raised to $2,500 or even $3,000. That way even if some of those charged do not pay at least the ones who do will still help fill any hole in the department’s budget.
Drone also asked about the possibility of using the county’s safety sales tax money to help pay for fire calls.
Board member Bruce Tolley said there is not enough money generated from the tax. The tax generates $1.25 million per year and the sheriff’s office budget is “just a hair over $2 million.”
“It does not generate enough money to take on all safety operations in the county alone,” Tolley said.
Board members Danny Gibbs said he has heard a bitter sentiment among some county residents affected by the city council’s fire call vote that if the city does not appreciate them then they will no longer contribute to the city’s sales tax revenue by shopping Harrisburg’s businesses. He discouraged this line of thought.
“What I don’t want the public doing is blaming the businesses of the City of Harrisburg because of the comments the city official had said ‘We’re not going to service the outside residents.’ I spend a lot of money inside the city limits. My first intuition is ‘I’ll take my shopping elsewhere,’ but who am I going to affect? I’m going to affect the local businessmen. We don’t want to affect the local businessmen because of the decision of five people on the city council,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs said he believes the council’s action could have the effect of forcing outlying areas to annex into the city.
He also said he believes the county board could end the disagreement with the city by talking to Harrisburg Township officials about the possibility of a township fire district.
At the end of the meeting board Chairman Karey Harbison offered assurance to county residents that the board wants to see every county resident with fire service available whatever the outcome July 1, 2013.
“The thing we don’t want is any of our citizens to be left short,” Harbison said.
Page 3 of 3 - The board gave the assurance that other departments will respond to calls in Harrisburg’s current fire call district if Harrisburg fails to do so.