Ill. Town Hires Private Firefighters

Published March 1, 2007

The village of Lakewood, Illinois, a northwest suburb of Chicago, has hired a private company to provide fire protection and emergency medical services as part of a long-term program to protect taxpayers and homeowners. The program includes construction of the village’s first fire station.

Lakewood had been paying neighboring Crystal Lake for fire and rescue services, but Crystal Lake’s insistence on higher payments prompted Lakewood officials to look for an alternative. Village officials hired American Emergency Service Corporation to begin providing fire and rescue services on January 1.

Lakewood, with slightly more than 3,000 residents and 1,100 upscale homes spread over four square miles, is in McHenry County, one of the fastest-growing counties in Illinois. Crystal Lake, which abuts Lakewood, has about 12 times the population and a significant amount of commercial and industrial property.

‘Effective for Residents’

“Based on our research, we have determined that the construction of a Lakewood fire station provides us with the greatest number of long-term options for the provision of fire protection services within our community,” said Lakewood Village President Julie Richardson.

“Given this decision,” Richardson continued, “our efforts have focused on locating the service provider that can staff and equip the station in the manner that is most effective for our residents. At this time, we have determined that American Emergency Service Corporation is this company.

“I actually think we’re going to exceed [taxpayers’] expectations about service,” Richardson said. The contract with American Emergency Service Corporation “will include a flat rate to save the village money.”

Avoids Tax Hike

Crystal Lake officials had demanded Lakewood residents pay a property tax rate of 41 cents per $100 of equalized assessed value in 2007, to match what Crystal Lake property owners pay for fire service. Lakewood residents in 2006 paid 28.5 cents per $100 of equalized assessed value for fire service.

The 2006 property tax rate generated $464,578 from Lakewood for Crystal Lake. The proposed rate would have generated about $768,591 in 2007 from Lakewood for Crystal Lake’s emergency services, and future increases in the tax rate were possible, according to Lakewood officials.

“The City of Crystal Lake believes that this is the most equitable solution and will not consider any other basis for calculation of their fee,” said an October 23, 2006 letter from the Village of Lakewood to residents.

“We disagree, however,” the letter continued, “as our residents pay an average of $2,700 per call for service and Crystal Lake residents pay an average of $714 per call for service. As [local] representatives, we have long argued that a fee based on calls for service would be more equitable because it would more closely tie their fee to their costs to provide the service.”

Decades in Fire Service

American Emergency Service Corporation was featured in the April 2006 issue of Budget & Tax News for the fire protection services it provides the Elk Grove Rural Fire Protection District, which covers an area near O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and includes the corporate headquarters of United Airlines.

The firm’s president, Gary Jensen, has been in fire service all his life, starting as a graduate of the Oklahoma State University fire protection program.

In the late 1970s Jensen was working for an insurance trade association in Chicago and was a paid-on-call firefighter when he learned the Elk Grove rural fire district would lose service from the nearby City of Des Plaines. Jensen pitched a proposal to create a private fire and rescue operation, and fire district trustees accepted.

High Standards, Low Costs

Jensen said because the operation is private, wage and benefits costs are lower than those incurred by fire districts that hire their own firefighters and paramedics, even though his firefighters and paramedics must meet the same training and response standards.

Jensen also noted that because his company is non-union, he has more flexibility in hiring, firing, and disciplining employees.

John W. Skorburg ([email protected]) is visiting lecturer in economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago and associate editor of Budget & Tax News.