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Rural fire departments not eager to pay new dispatch service

SYCAMORE – DeKalb County’s 10 rural fire departments have received free dispatching service from the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office’s Communications Division since the 911 system was established.

However, that long-standing practice is set to come to an end. For months, Sheriff Roger Scott and other county officials have been negotiating a new fee system for the small departments.

Only Cortland and Kirkland have yet to pay or agree to pay the new fees, although it is not sitting well with some, including longtime Shabbona Fire Chief Frank Ottengheime.

“We pay taxes, we pay county taxes, we pay on our phone bills, we pay on our cellular phone bills, in other instances they pay into the city taxes,” said Ottengheime, who has been with Shabbona’s all-volunteer department for 40 years. “I don’t know how many times we can be taxed for the same service.  

“... Our feeling is that it’s an essential service, it should be supplied.”

Although the proposed fees come at a time when the county is curbing spending to balance its budget, Scott said that was not what spurred the change. Rather, it was officials from rural police departments who suggested the fire departments chip in.

“Rural police departments have been paying for a number of years, and it was a consensus of the rural police departments that the rural fire departments should help reduce the costs for the rural police departments,” Scott said. “They took that proposal to the [County Board’s Law and Justice Committee] back in 2015, and they lobbied to redevelop a plan that included the rural fire departments.”

County documents show the rural fire agencies will pay about $26,000 for service in the fiscal year that ends June 30. That figure will grow to about $30,000 by 2021.

The county’s eight rural police departments – Cortland, Hinckley, Kingston, Kirkland, Malta, Shabbona, Somonauk and Waterman – will pay $162,000 this fiscal year, records show.

The sums that the county wants to charge are comparatively small. The Shabbona fire board recently agreed to pay the $1,900 fee for dispatching services – a fee that will increase each year by 3 percent to 4 percent through 2021.

The dispatch fee, when spread among the homeowners in a district, will cost a homeowner anywhere from 14 cents to $2 per $100,000 in assessed value, according to county documents. Shabbona’s fire district includes about 400 homes, Ottengheime said.

But the dispatch fee is just one more financial demand on volunteer fire departments that are already facing trying changes. Volunteer firefighters in Shabbona are paid $8.50 an hour, Ottengheime said, while paramedics earn $12.50 an hour. As the part-time chief, Ottengheime earns $3,000 a year.

“No one’s getting rich fighting these fires,” Ottengheime said. “A guy gets $10 to get up at 3 a.m., they’re not in it to make money.”

Training and other requirements for running an ambulance are making a volunteer ambulance service a less workable proposition. With the tax cap limiting what rural fire districts can collect in tax dollars, adding a new fee can have an effect on what equipment and training a fire agency can afford, Ottengheime said.

Scott noted that he had been through several different proposed formulas as the sheriff’s office sought to convince everyone it was being fair. He said that increases in what the agencies were asked to pay were tied to increased labor costs, which are dictated by a union contract.

At any rate, although the sheriff’s office has been providing the service for free for decades, it has never been required to, Scott said.

“Fire dispatching is not a mandated responsibility of the sheriff’s office,” he said. “It is an additional responsibility. We have several mandates in the statutes, that’s not one of them.”

Fire dispatch fees

The DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office provides dispatching services for most rural fire departments in the county. They have instituted new fees for the departments, which are scheduled to increase by 3.4 percent to 4.1 percent a year through June 30, 2021.

Cortland $4,300

Hinckley $2,750

Kirkland $3,400

Lee $450

Leland $1,450

Malta $2,350

Paw Paw $200

Shabbona $1,900

Somonauk $5,950

Waterman $2,400

Source: DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office

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