November 23, 2016
The Civic Federation recently released its second report that examines the unincorporated areas in Cook County.
In the report, the Civic Federation identified a number of issues surrounding unincorporated areas that residents, municipalities, local governments, businesses and other stakeholders identified during the interviews conducted by the Federation. In addition to the formal interviews conducted with various stakeholders, Civic Federation staff also contacted individual townships, municipal departments, fire protection districts, property managers of manufactured home communities and multi-family dwelling complexes for clarification on the delivery of certain municipal type services, such as water and fire protection services. This blog highlights one of the key issues identified - fire protection in unincorporated areas of Cook County.
Based on information gathered during the interviews and additional research, the Federation recommends in its report that Cook County should work with local elected officials, the Illinois State Fire Marshall and the Illinois General Assembly to change current state statute to require all unincorporated areas in urbanized counties to be within the boundaries of a fire protection provider by a certain future date. Current state statute allows for the Illinois State Fire Marshall to assign unincorporated areas not within the boundaries of a fire protection boundary upon written request from the registered voters or property owners of the unincorporated areas. However, the provider of fire protection services has no remedy for collecting the annual payment. Based on Civic Federation interviews with municipal officials this creates a system of “free-riders” in certain unincorporated areas who may ultimately benefit from fire protection services in times of emergency without paying for those services on an annual basis.
Fire Protection in Unincorporated Cook County
The majority of the unincorporated areas in Cook County are within the boundaries of a fire protection district. The unincorporated areas that are not within the boundaries of a fire protection district are typically serviced by a neighboring municipality. Furthermore, there are certain fire protection districts that exist only for taxing purposes and contract with a neighboring municipal fire department or fire protection district to provide fire and emergency medical services to that particular unincorporated area.
In most circumstances, when fire protection services are provided by a neighboring municipality, the unincorporated property owners do not pay a property tax to fund those services. Instead, the municipality will charge an annual fee to each residence or business. However, municipalities often find it difficult to collect the annual fee for fire and emergency medical services on unincorporated residents and businesses outside of their municipal boundaries. Despite this, they still will be the first responders to an emergency.
It was also noted during the interviews that many of the unincorporated areas lack access to fire hydrants and that if municipalities were to annex the unincorporated areas that it may increase the Insurance Service Office (ISO) fire rating of the municipality. In addition, many municipalities identified the issue of paying a disconnection fee to fire protection districts over a five-year period when municipalities annex unincorporated areas that were within the boundaries of a fire protection district.
The municipal fire departments that provide fire and emergency medical services to unincorporated areas that are not within the boundaries of a fire protection district, but bill unincorporated residents and businesses an annual fire protection fee for providing fire protection services include:
The fire protection districts located in Cook County that provide fire protection services to unincorporated areas and levy a tax on those properties include:
The fire protection districts located in Cook County that exist for taxing purposes only, but contract with a neighboring municipality or fire protection district to provide fire protection services to unincorporated areas include: