Harrisburg City Council is open to extending the deadline for outside the city fire calls following emotional discussions during Thursday night’s meeting.
Council had voted to cease all outside the city calls except for calls of mutual aid to other fire departments operating inside their own corporate limits effective July 1.
Bill Ghent, owner of Bill Ghent Insurance Co. and Harrisburg City Safety Officer, appealed for the extension saying there is need for all parties to cease rhetoric and concentrate on the well-being of Saline County.
“I’m not here to participate in any tearing down of another person. We all must be adults here and stop this tit for tat,” Ghent said.
The city has asked the Saline County Board for reimbursement for costs associated with calls outside the corporate limits or lose the city’s fire service. The Saline County Board responded by reaching an agreement with other departments to cover the entire county.
“(The County Board) has a solution that’s not workable at all and that is not going to help the county one iota,” Ghent said.
Saline County Board Chairman Carey Harbison said he believed that solution was adequate, but Ghent and Eldorado Mayor Rocky James have been talking about other possible solutions and met recently with Harbison and Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg.
Ghent believes cutting Harrisburg out of the county fire response issue would have a negative effect on all the towns and county’s fire ratings with the exception of Harrisburg.
“What’s going to happen now is Harrisburg fire district (Insurance Services Office insurance rating) is going to improve and Eldorado, Carrier Mills and Galatia’s is going to get worse,” Ghent said.
The ISO rating is on a 1 to 10 scale with 1 being the best. The rating is based on availability of firefighters and equipment and availability of water. Residents within five miles of a municipality have a higher rating than those outside that range. Harrisburg citizens enjoy the highest rating at a 4, Galatia has a 6, Equality has a 7, Carrier Mills has a 5 and Eldorado has a 5, Ghent said. Those within 5 miles of the city have an ISO rating of 8, but those outside that 5 miles of Harrisburg who have no water available have a rating of 10. Ghent said ISO ratings of all other municipalities besides Harrisburg could drop since there is a chance their departments could be at a fire outside of their corporate limits when a fire in their municipality occurs, thus leaving their municipality less protected. If their rating lowers, that means higher insurance bills for all non-Harrisburg county residents.
Ghent said he wants to see all the municipalities work together to set the stage for countywide fire protection district.
Page 2 of 3 - The success of the district depends on water availability throughout the county and that Harrisburg should be involved.
“You’re talking fire protection district and now you’re wanting us to furnish water throughout the county,” commissioner Ron Fearheiley said.
Ghent said water could involve hydrants, strategic placement of tanks, locating available ponds and strategies for shuttling water.
Commissioner Ron Crank asked for clarification.
“What you’re asking is for the city taxpayers to furnish service to citizens outside this district?” Crank said.
Crank repeated that the fire department would continue to provide mutual aid to municipalities under the agreement those municipalities would help Harrisburg when needed.
“The problem with the county is there’s nobody to do mutual aid with,” Crank said.
Ghent asked if the city would really turn down a request from Eldorado firefighters to help with a fire at Southeastern Illinois College between the two towns.
Crank said not only would the fire department not respond, but they would not respond to a fire in the city of Eldorado if Eldorado Fire Department was out of the city on a fire call.
“If their square was on fire and they are not there to put it out, we’re not coming out,” Crank said.
Gregg offered a softer tone, reflecting on the aid that came to Harrisburg from throughout Southern Illinois in the aftermath of the Feb. 29, 2012, tornado.
“My problem is knowing we have the appropriate equipment to save a life and we don’t do it,” Gregg said.
Fearheiley and Crank urged the county board to place a referendum on the ballot to approve a tax for the creation of a rural fire protection district.
Ghent said it first was necessary to come up with a plan for a rural fire protection district before asking the voters to approve a tax increase.
“You don’t go the ballot with an idea; you go to the ballot with a plan,” Ghent said.
“I think when people start getting their insurance bills they’ll start thinking about it,” Commissioner Bart Schiff said.
Commissioner John McPeek said the safety tax money should be used for fire protection in addition to funding the sheriff’s department.
“I’d say, ‘Listen here, sheriff’s department, you’re not getting this money any more,’” McPeek said.
Harbison said the safety tax brings in $1.6 million a year and the sheriff’s department costs $2.1 million to operate.
“Our obligation is to the city of Harrisburg,” Crank said.
Page 3 of 3 - “And my obligation is to the citizens of Saline County and that includes the city of Harrisburg,” Harbison said.
Fearheiley said he was opposed to extending the deadline for fire service unless the county showed some sign of movement toward a rural fire protection district.
“I know what you wanting, an extension. If I don’t see something I’m not giving you one. I would give you two fire trucks. Bill Ghent will say that’s not much, but it’s more than you’ve got now,” Fearheiley said.
Eldorado Mayor Rocky James spoke encouraging the extension.
“You’re talking two trucks, then to staff them you have to raise the tax and you’re going to pay, we all are going to pay,” James said.
James said he does not want Eldorado firefighters “flying to Harrisburg” to rapidly reach a fire and risking safety. He said if Harrisburg cannot collect the $2,000 outside fire call fee they should pursue liens against property. He encouraged the municipalities, the county and Harrisburg to meet monthly to prepare for a fire protection district while continuing the service to the county Harrisburg has always provided.
“If you’ve got a heart you extend this a year and let’s talk like men,” James said.
“In my opinion — and I’m one of five votes — I think (extending the deadline) is contingent on the county agreeing to work with the city and all the communities in the county,” Gregg said.
Harbison said he would consult with the Saline County Board during the meeting 7 p.m. May 23.
“That way we’re not giving up the hammer and we can work together,” Gregg said.
Harrisburg Fire Chief Bill Summers said he would contact the chief of the Willamson County Rural Fire Protection District about addressing the county board on the creation of the Williamson district.
“He said he would be glad to explain to the county board step by step how they got there,” Summers said.