Lake Bluff consolidation proposal could save taxpayers $500K

Lake Bluff consolidation proposal could save taxpayers $500K

A joint service agreement between two fire departments could save Lake Bluff more than $500,000 over five years, once fully implemented. The plan would be a welcome change of pace for residents, as Lake County homeowners pay some of the highest property taxes in the nation.

A new proposal by a Lake County village may create a windfall in savings for residents paying some of the highest property taxes in the country.

The Lake County village of Lake Bluff is proposing to create a joint fire department with Knollwood, a nearby unincorporated community, that would serve residents of both communities. The joint department is estimated to save taxpayers more than $522,000 over the course of five years.

The plan proposes a joint service agreement with the neighboring Rockland Fire Protection District, phased in over three years, to fully realize joint fire and emergency medical services.

“This plan can ensure we are served by local, connected, and committed Fire and EMS professionals that live and enjoy serving in our community,” Lake Bluff Fire Chief David Graf said, according to Patch. “These two departments train and respond together and, in fact, work even today as though they were one department with two stations.”

Lake County homeowners pay the highest median property tax rate in the state and the 21st highest in the nation, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

While the village estimates it will save $522,550 over five years once the joint department is in effect, more savings could result from future fleet and equipment reductions.

Unfortunately, consolidation alone will not be enough to stem high property taxes in Lake Bluff or in Lake County. Reform-minded local leaders are still significantly restricted in how they can control costs for their own communities.

Communities like Lake Bluff still have to face cost-drivers that bring up property taxes. Costly pensions, high workers’ compensation costs and unfair collective bargaining powers for government worker unions all help drive up property taxes.

Illinois law mandates municipalities like Lake Bluff to create and maintain pension funds for police and professional fire departments, ultimately leaving taxpayers on the hook for pension failures. Lake Bluff is able to get around this costly mandate by using a volunteer fire department.

But Lake Bluff still has to provide pensions for their police department, per state law, and it’s a rapidly growing cost for the village. The Lake Bluff police pension fund has less than 56 cents on hand for every dollar it owes in future benefits, according to the Illinois Department of Insurance.

But it’s not for lack of trying.

From 2012-2016, taxpayer contributions to the fund increased more than 30 percent, yet in that time the fund’s funding ratio increased by less than five percentage points.

For Lake County homeowners, property taxes have been growing out of control for years. An Illinois Policy Institute study found that between 2000 and an average of years 2009-2013, the average property tax burden for Lake County residents grew by more than 44 percent.

And statewide, average property tax bills in Illinois grew six times faster than household incomes from 2008-2015.

Lake County residents are tapped out and need relief. Until state lawmakers take action to reduce local cost-drivers, reform-minded local leaders will always have one hand tied behind their back when trying to reduce costs for their constituents.

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