Saturday, November 21, 2009

Challenges facing taxpayers in Orland Fire District

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I don’t think I ever would have thought about the Orland Fire Protection District (OFPD) had it not been for the email I received from former Orland Park trustee Tom Dubelbeis. Dubelbeis, as I later learned, is a campaign adviser to Pat Maher, the son of the Orland Park Village Clerk David Maher whose royalty in politics traces back to the privileged 19th Ward Democratic Organization.

Dubelbeis was the “enabler” who “introduced me” to Pat Maher, in much the same way that a royal announcer introduces the Queen of England when she enters a room. In this case, Maher was entering serious politics beyond his role as President of the Orland Fire Protection District which I had assumed was just like any other fire department.

It’s not. In fact, it is one of the most expensive fire protection districts in the state with a budget of about $26 million a year. It takes 12.51 percent of your property taxes, the largest chunk of any government agency not including the school districts.

I guess that’s the definition of royalty. But in reality, it’s the taxpayers who getting the royal screws.

A TYPICAL SATURDAY, SHOCKED BY WASTEFUL SPENDING

Every Saturday, I like to work on my lawn, read a book and find those old black and white movies from the 50s on the TCM Channel. It’s the one time where I actually get to greet the mailman, too, and collect the mail personally.

You can imagine how shocked I was when I opened my mail and found a full color eight page brochure from the Orland Fire Protection District. It was addressed to “RESIDENT” so I assume everyone in the Orland Fire Protection Distirct, almost exclusively residents of Orland Park and unincorporated Orland Township, received one.

Most government brochures are informative. This one was all about politics, promoting the fact that Pat Maher is a candidate not for re-election but for a bigger job, one suitable for a person of his 19th Ward pedigree, the commissioner of the Cook County Board from the 17th District which encompasses Orland Township and the OFPD, and communities all the way north to Wheeling.

Right on the front page was the debate that Maher is engaging in as the foundation of his election campaign. Maher insists -- despite the facts – that the Orland Fire Protection District is a benefit to taxpayers. The front page article paralleled the arguments he made recently in a press release about how he has “reduced” taxes. The rest of the information was useless timber,  including “Tips” on how to shovel snow, and “Tips” for Thanksgiving. Hey, it reminded us days before Thanksgiving, “The Holidays are around the corner.”

Like I needed the Orland Fire Protection District to tell me in an expensive mailer that I would estimate probably costs over $25,000 to produce a mail, maybe more.

Is that a way to save taxes, Mr. President, your Excellency, your 19th Ward Prince?

I don’t think so. The whole purpose clearly is so that Maher can respond to charges that the Orland Fire Protection District is a costly waste of money to taxpayers. That’s not a good platform to run on, so candidates who manage bloated government agencies always tell you about how much they have cut back taxes, reduced spending, rebated money and protected your interests as a taxpayer.

Baloney.

OFPD IS ONE OF THE MOST EXPENSIVE IN STATE

Fire Protection Districts were an ingenious idea when the suburbs were prairies and communities were miles apart and they couldn’t afford huge municipal budgets to pay for a fulltime fire department. A Fire Protection District was a great way to have each community share in the cost and save the tax payers money. The alternative is to have a volunteer fire department, as many communities big and small still do.

The Lemont Fire Protection District, for example, covers an area of approximately 40 square miles and serves the Village of Lemont, portions of Woodridge, Darien, Bolingbrook, and Homer Glen. It collected about $12.2 million in revenues including $7.5 million from property taxes and they spent about $10.7 million in overall expenses.

I know that because the Lemont Fire Department puts their budget on their web site, obviously because they are very proud of what they do. Click here for the link.

The typical fire department costs about $8 million to manage

The Orland Fire Protection District budget is $25.6 million and covers only 33 square miles. It has 157 employees (or 81 percent of the entire budget), expanded this year with several new hires and positions from last years. Click here for the link.

That’s three times the average cost of a Fire Department?

Of course, when you see how they spend money, and understand that the Prince of the Orland Fire Protection District is planning to break into politics in a big way next year, you can then understand why they don’t care about spending $20,000 to publish a newsletter with a lot of worthless drivel.

$20,000, by my estimate, so that on Page 1 with his picture, Prince Maher can tell the taxpayers that he “abated” $1.3 million.

Of course he can abate $1.3 million. He’s collecting $25.6 million far more than any other fire department in the region (outside of Chicago).

When you look at the budget, it’s a shell game. He’s not cutting back taxes, he has a bloated budget that has so much excess funds including rolled-over bond issues that if retired would save tax payers millions but have been recommitted to a new training center.

Believe me when I tell you this is all about politics. When a politician tells you they are cutting your taxes, figure that your taxes will go up a fortune.

In fact, over the past eight years, my taxes paid to the Orland Fire Protection District have continued to skyrocket.

Do we get accountability? No. We get rhetoric and statistical shell games. When I pointed out one of the OFPD Battalion Chiefs was using his gas-guzzling Fire District-owned SUV for personal reasons outside of the district, they shrugged and said they’d look in to it.

It still goes on.

-- Ray Hanania

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