Wauconda referendum meeting draws range of emotions, questions

Monday, September 27, 2010

There was mix of fear, support and anger Thursday at a Wauconda town hall meeting where about 150 residents turned out to discuss a Nov. 2 referendum to change the way fire service is paid.

One resident became so angry during a second turn at the microphone that he was escorted out of the meeting at Wauconda High School and ticketed by police for disorderly conduct, a local ordinance violation.

The resident, a 52-year-old man, was loudly questioning village officials when someone in the audience shouted for him to "lighten up." He refused, even after the police chief and officers asked him to do so. He kicked a few folding chairs as two officers held him by the arms and escorted him from the meeting.

The question put on the ballot by a citizen petition asks residents whether the village should annex into the Wauconda Fire Protection District. Doing so would shift the cost from the village budget to a line item on property owner's tax bill.

The owner of a home with a market value of $200,000 now pays about $4,138 in property taxes, with $515 for village services. Voter approval would boost the tax bill by $269, but the village is reducing the utility tax by 50 percent or about $110 for the owner of that home. Therefore, officials say the same property tax bill would be $4,297, or up $159.

Without voter approval, the village would need to cut services, including police and snow plowing, to balance the budget and maintain the annual $2 million fire service contract. The village already has frozen salaries and eliminated 20 jobs to cut spending.

"What we've tried to do is not make cuts into core services," Mayor Mark Knigge said. "What we've done is put it in your hands. What services do you want? It comes down to do you trust your village officials."

Village Administrator Daniel E. Quick said other towns covered by fire districts have a line item on tax bills for the service.

"We've been robbing Peter to pay Paul and that's how we ended up here," he said.

Wauconda Fire Protection District Chief Dave Dato explained Wauconda is part of a fire service area covering 50 square miles and 40,000 residents. With a $7.8 million budget, it has three stations that also cover Hawthorn Woods, Island Lake, Round Lake, Tower Lakes and unincorporated areas in Lake and McHenry counties. Forty percent of calls come from Wauconda.

Longtime resident Don Bitters said many people cannot afford a tax increase right now.

"I took a 20 percent pay reduction this year and now you are asking me to raise taxes?" he said.

Supporters expressed concern about cutting the level of fire and paramedic service.

"I would hate to see my neighbors' house catch fire and no one come. I know money is involved. I lived through World War II and the Korean War and we did without. Fire protection is necessary. Police protection is necessary. We can't do without that," resident Audrey Lewis said.

Resident Patrice Whitten said she believes you get what you pay for.

"I want paramedics coming to my house, not EMTs. I want that level of training. I urge you to think about what it might be worth to you because I do," she said.

Some residents said they were not convinced the village has done all it could to avoid shifting the cost to property taxpayers, and called for alternate funding.

Others questioned the costs of the fire protection district, which uses its tax rate and the equalized assessed value of property to determine what each entity pays for fire service.

Resident Gary Thompson said the district is one of the best in the state, but he wanted to know what it is doing to tighten its belt.

Dato said the district watches expenditures, does all repairs in-house and is creating a station in Volo by converting an existing house on the site and building a 50-foot by 100-foot structure for emergency vehicles.

Resident Dan Borah said homeowners risk home rising insurance costs and falling home values if the referendum is not approved.

"We really don't have a choice. We're going to pay one way or the other," he said, and suggested the village look at ways to also pass the cost on to renters.

There appeared to be no organized opposition to the referendum.