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One Town's Fire-Rescue Crisis

By Mark Yost
Chicago, IL, USA

Mark Yost

If there was a state symbolic of the anti-government wave that swept through the country in the 2014 mid-term elections, it was Illinois. Once considered a staunchly blue state that could be counted on to reliably elect Democrats year after year, the (former) Land of Lincoln voted to put a Republican in the statehouse.

And not just any Republican.

Governor-elect Bruce Rauner is a multi-millionaire business owner who campaigned on a platform of widespread tax reform to lure businesses back to the state, radically reform and restructure public-employee pensions that are in the red to the tune of $100 billion, and do whatever he could to prevent the passage of a higher minimum wage. The fact that he beat Chicago machine politician Pat Quinn by more than 5 points was the exclamation point to the change in voter sentiment.

The "throw the bums out" voter attitude that put Rauner in office also propelled conservatives to victories across the country, including taking back the U.S. Senate. Pundits called it a "wave election."

But with every tidal wave, there are innocent bystanders. One group being unfairly swamped in all of this is firefighters. You know, the guys who show up when you forget to clean the lint in your dryer for 18 months. Their quick response and experience is the reason the fire doesn't spread from your ductwork to the rest of your house. They're also the guys who show up unexpectedly over the holidays and revive Uncle Ernie, who between his third cocktail and fourth trip to the snack tray had a massive coronary in your living room.

When they're not showing up in your most dire hour of need, fire departments across the country are literally fighting for their financial lives. They're struggling for money to replace worn out equipment or buy new lifesaving heart monitors; they're also fighting city councils over staffing levels – some cities want to ignore industry and government recommended standards and only have three firefighters on a truck or engine, and staff ambulances with just one paramedic who has advanced training such as the ability to read ECGs in the field and deliver drugs that can mean the difference between Uncle Ernie living or dying.

The one community that perhaps best symbolizes this nexus of anti-government voter sentiment and the good Samaritans who are caught in the middle of it all is Antioch, Illinois. Literally situated on the Illinois-Wisconsin border, about an hour north and slightly west of Chicago, Antioch has a bit of a storied fire history.

There are actually two Antiochs. There is the village, and then there is the township. For decades, both Antiochs – which comprise about eight square miles of a small downtown surrounded by rolling hills, lakes and channels – was protected by a mostly volunteer fire department. For ambulance service, the community relied on the private Antioch Rescue Squad. The rescue squad had an endowment that was left by a wealthy benefactor, but for the most part both groups relied on the usual funding – a small tax abatement (that barely covered operating expenses) that was heavily subsidized by donations, chicken barbecues and pancake breakfasts.

"For the longest time, this was a Norman Rockwell community of about 5,000," said Deputy Chief Chris Lienhardt, who has been on the department for 30 years. "But over the past decade or so, our population has tripled and the number of people who could volunteer on the fire department has shrunk."

Antioch Firemen (Courtesy of the Antioch Fire Department)

And for decades, the rescue squad and the volunteer fire department had a "gentlemen's agreement," to help out each other, said Chief John Nixon. The fire department – which had volunteers who were Emergency Medical Technicians – would respond to rescue squad calls when they needed extra help, and the rescue squad would come to Antioch fire calls, should anyone be injured and need medical care.

"When I was a kid, I split my finger wide open," Lienhardt said. "I didn't call 9-1-1 or go to the ER. I walked up the block to Doug Lang's house. He was on the rescue squad, patched up my finger, and sent me on my way. That's how this town was."  

That all started to change in 2013 when the Antioch Rescue Squad was sued by a former employee for sexual harassment. Long story short, the village and township both ceased doing business with the rescue squad, so the fire department stepped in to provide EMS service to the community.

Historically, the fire department had been an all-volunteer corps. But over the past five years it had evolved to include a 24-hour paid crew at one station, followed by another crew at a second station. Many of those paid crew members were full-time firefighters at other departments, working second jobs. So when Antioch Rescue folded, many of the Antioch volunteers and paid firefighters were already certified paramedics.   

Within nine days of Antioch ending its relationship with the rescue squad, the fire department had three crews with nine people, Lienhardt said.

Today, the Antioch Fire Department has four used ambulances with full crews, providing EMS service to a community that's at least 20-30 minutes away from any other Advanced Life Support ambulance service.

"We took over EMS with no funding sources," Chief Nixon said. "The village set aside some of its reserves for operation of an ALS ambulance, but without a sustainable funding mechanism, we couldn't keep it going."

Adding to Antioch's budget problems, the demise of Antioch Rescue came in the middle of the budget cycle, and at a time when property tax revenues had fallen along with real estate values.

Fast-forward a few months to the 2014 mid-term elections. The fire department put together a series of town hall meetings to explain to residents in both the village and the township why they were asking to raise property tax levies. They volunteered to canvas neighborhoods, passing out fliers and talking with anyone who had questions about the proposed levy.

In the meantime, in May 2014, the Antioch Rescue Squad, which had been temporarily suspended by the city and township, was terminated permanently. In what can only be seen as an act of spite, the rescue squad donated all of its equipment to departments outside of Antioch.

"We needed to establish a permanent funding mechanism," Chief Nixon said. "The best way to do that was to create a levy to provide ALS ambulances funded off real estate property taxes."

So what did the Antioch Fire Department ask for, you're wondering?

"We asked for one quarter of one percent," Chief Nixon said.

In other words, 0.25%.

"On a residence valued at $100,000, it would mean the homeowner would pay $83 a year," Deputy Chief Lienhardt said.

According to the 2010 census, the median value of a home in Antioch is just over $200,000, up from about $160,000 in 2000, but down significantly from 2007-08.

"We picked the absolute hardest time to attempt this real estate levy," Chief Nixon admits. "There hadn't been a request [for a property tax increase] in Lake County in five years."

You know where this is going.

Out of about 4,000 voters, the measure failed by 214 votes in the village and 650 votes in the township.

"Many people didn't understand why this was suddenly being thrust upon them," Chief Nixon said. "But in the end, people simply didn't want to pay for any new taxes."

And here's the kicker: If your house in Antioch is worth, say, $200,000, you'd pay about $170 a year for ambulance service that you may or may not need. But without the referendum, Antioch Fire is now billing $1,500, the standard rate. Thanks to Medicaid and private insurance rules, the fire department is only collecting about 40% of what they're billing. Adding to the fire department's budget woes, a survey of the area found that some 37% of residents don't have insurance of any kind that would cover ambulance trips.

So where does all this leave the Antioch Fire Department, which currently responds to about 2,000 calls a year in both the village and township?

"We will make a second attempt at referendum in April 2015," Chief Nixon said. "The fire district is out of money and has no reserves. We've already had to close one fire station and reduce on-duty staffing from 11 to 8."

And if the April 2015 referendum fails?

"There's a strong possibility that there won't be any ambulance service in Antioch, and residents will have to rely on private EMS," Deputy Chief Lienhardt said.

In the meantime, Antioch Fire – ever the good guys, mostly volunteers – will continue to run EMS calls at their own expense (and to the detriment of their overall fire budget) until April 2015.

"We're not a wealthy department," said Deputy Chief Lienhardt, who has an annual training budget of just $18,000 and 20-year-old equipment that's now 25 years old, with no hope of replacement anytime soon with the budget strain of the new, unfunded EMS responsibilities.

But the taxpayers got what they wanted: No new taxes.

The big question is: Can they live with that decision – both literally and figuratively?



Antioch Fire Department

Mark Yost at Stay Thirsty Publishing
Mark Yost


Mark Yost is a frequent contributor to The Wall St. Journal and is the author of Cooper's Daughter and Jimmy's Nephew.

All opinions expressed by Mark Yost are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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