Oswego fire chief acknowledges challenge in seeking referendum passage

Assistant Chief John Cornish directed junior high students on where to place the donated toys, as part of the annual Toys for Tots drive at Oswego Fire Protection District Station 1, Friday, Dec. 13.

Oswego Fire Protection District Chief John Cornish told the Montgomery Village Board May 9 that fire district officials are well aware they face a challenge in seeking voter approval of a property tax hike referendum next month.

“This is hard, we all know,” Cornish said, adding, “It is difficult for me to sit here and ask for a referendum to be passed at this time. It is absolutely hard to do. I’m a taxpayer in this area as well, but it is something that if we are to maintain the services we provide today it is something we feel very strongly about getting passed.”

Last March the fire district’s governing board voted unanimously to place the referendum on the June 28 primary election ballot. Early voting for the referendum begins next Thursday, May 19.

The district is asking voters to approve a 0.10% increase in the district’s property tax levy rate. If approved, fire district officials estimate the owner of a home valued at $300,000 would see the fire district’s portion of their annual property tax bill which is currently about $600 increase by about $99.

The referendum is the second one attempted by the fire district over the past 13 months. Voters narrowly rejected the district’s tax hike request in April of last year.

Cornish attributed the fire district’s need for additional tax revenue to the population growth that has occurred in the district over the past two decades along with sharply rising equipment costs.

The fire district’s boundaries encompass a 53 square mile area of northeast Kendall County and northwestern Will County and includes all of the village of Oswego and the unincorporated Boulder Hill subdivision, along with portions of Montgomery, Yorkville and Plainfield.

Cornish noted that when voters last passed a fire district referendum in 2002 the agency was serving approximately 27,000 residents. Today the fire district is serving about 75,000 residents.

The fire district provides emergency ambulance and fire service from four stations: two located within the village of Oswego, one in Montgomery and one in Plainfield.

The population growth, Cornish said, has served to swell the number of calls for service the fire district receives.

Back in 2002, he said the agency responded to about 2,000 calls but that number had swelled to more than 6,000 calls in 2021.

“Just from 2008 to today there has been a 65% increase in call volume,” Cornish said.

Oswego Fire Protection District Fire Chief John Cornish, center, addresses the Montgomery Village Board May 9, 2022.

Cornish said the fire district will always respond to calls for service, but by asking voters to approve the tax hike they are seeking to maintain the district’s current service level.

Without the additional revenue, Cornish warned the fire district will not be able to maintain its services at current levels.

“Ambulance availability will continue to decrease and response times will increase,” he said, adding, “Our staff, our trustees, all of our people find this unacceptable.”

Cornish noted the agency’s response time for emergencies is “hugely important” and its current response time average is about six minutes and 29 seconds.

“Fires can double in size every 60 seconds and cardiac arrest survivability rates decrease by 15% every minute without medical care,” he said.

Cornish noted the agency has seen costs for equipment for its fire trucks and ambulances increase dramatically over the past several years.

“A cardiac monitor is three times the cost of what it was 15 years ago. It (now) runs about $44,100,” Cornish said. “We have a cardiac monitor on all of our ALS (Advanced Life Support) ambulances and or fire apparatus.”

Cornish said revenues from the tax increase would allow the district to staff and bring a fourth, full-time ambulance into service 24 hours every day of the year, replace outdated equipment and aging apparatus and attract and retain qualified personnel.

He said some of the benefits of the referendum’s passage would be better emergency response times, improved reliability of equipment, improved safety for fire district personnel, boost personnel recruitment and retention efforts, and potentially reduce fire insurance costs for district property owners.

Village board members did not respond to Cornish’s presentation. However, Trustee Theresa Sperling, serving as mayor pro-tem for the meeting in the absence of Village President Matt Brolley, thanked Cornish for attending.