Friday, December 11, 2009

Smith Crossing residents face choice, same fire service or more taxation

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The PR Machine from the tax-heavy Orland Park Fire Protection District has misled many Smith Crossing residents into to thinking that service will be better if they vote to merge with Orland rather than support an expansion of Mokena fire services their way.

Mokena wants to build a fire station to serve the residents of the unincorporated, but the tax-hungry Orland Fire Protection District – which has one of the largest budgets of any Fire Protection District in the region – wants to add the homes to their tax base.

Officials of the OFPD argue that Orland already has a fire station “less than a mile” from Smith Crossing and they’d be better off joining Orland. So a judge wisely decided to avoid the issue of who has more political clout, the hapless Mokena residents or the 19th Ward controlled Orland activists, and he ordered that the Smith Crossing residents vote on the matter in the Feb. 2 election.

That’s wise, but Smith Crossing residents better bone up on facts and stop being lured by the promises made by the OFPD which has serious tax issues and outrageous policies that are costly.

The issue is about money, not safety. There is absolutely no real difference when it comes to safety between the quality of the response that Smith Crossing residents will get from the Mokena Fire Department and what they will get from the Orland Fire Protection District. No difference except costs.

Orland offered to give the Smith Crossing residents “free” ambulance services, which Mokena was charging $1,200. It is a gimmick offer. When a resident in Orland is taken to the hospital in an Orland Fire Protection District ambulance, they are required to fill out the insurance forms so the district can charge their health insurance – which in most cases means that the insured also pay their share for the services (either through huge deductibles or through huge pre-payment costs).

Believe me when I tell you that the insurance company doesn’t pay for anything that they can’t pass on to the insured.

Still, it’s inviting, although Mokena changed its ways and now provides the same service.

But when anyone served by the Orland Fire Protection District takes a moment to look at their tax bills, they see right away that the OFPD takes the biggest chunk of their taxes next to the district’s schools; more than 12.51 percent of the your property taxes go to the OFPD. They have a $26 million annual budget, which is huge by any comparable standard.

No wonder they keep boasting (misleadingly) that they have "rebated" taxes. They collect so much they are the Orland equivalent of Todd Stroger’s tax wasteful Cook County administration. Stroger raised taxes so high so he could have an influx of cash and declare that he was the only government that could balance its budget. Balanced with out trimming fat and waste, of course.

The OFPD is doing the same thing. They dropped spending several years ago, and then increased it the amount they dropped just to make it easier for OFPD district elected officials run for political office. And there are enough of them there beginning with the OFPD President Patrick Maher who is running to become the commissioner from the 17th District. His father, David Maher, is the village clerk in Orland Park and a highly paid employee at Cook County, too.

If I had the choice that faces Smith Crossing voters, I’d cut a deal with Mokena to get the same service for far less. And, for those residents stuck in the OFPD who think that their very expensive fire service is a good deal, they should consider eliminating the Fire Protection District all together and merging it with the village of Orland Park. That's the referendum we need.

Many communities manage to provide the highest quality fire services with far less money, budgets of $6 to $8 million in Tinley Park where a volunteer force does the same quality work for far less.

It is about safety, of course, and the Orland Fire Protection District firefighters ARE among the best. But the district can still offer the same great service without costing us an arm and a leg in taxes. Just because I challenge their board doesn't mean I don't respect the challenges of firefighters, many of whom tell me they are fed up with the political games there.

That’s the issue that needs to considered carefully before digesting the baloney the ambitious elected officials in the OFPD are feeding to the public.

Symbolic of the wasted money in the OFPD is the ability of Battalion Chiefs to drive their gas-guzzling SUV’s anywhere they want on and off-duty for personal and business reasons. What a perq for being a highly paid fireman?

-- Ray Hanania

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