COLONA, Ill. — UPDATE: The Colona Fire Protection District rescue tax did not pass on June 28 37% to 36%. Only 24 votes separated the no's and the yes's.
ORIGINAL: Fire departments across the state and country are facing a severe staffing shortage right now. Those departments are struggling to recruit and retain new firefighters.
The all-volunteer fire department in Colona is all too familiar with these hiring struggles. For eight months, it had a sign outside Station 1 advertising that it was looking for volunteer firefighters to work during the day. Chief John Swan said out of the three applicants, he's only been able to hire one and that firefighter is still on probation.
The department currently has 24 volunteers on staff, and Swan said even though that number may seem like a lot, because the volunteers have other day jobs, it's not.
"We have an excellent fire department, excellent men and women are firefighters," Swan said. "We just need more of them."
Colona is on track to respond to about 1,000 calls this year, "which is unheard of for a volunteer department this size," he said. When Swan started working for the department 45 years ago, he said they were getting 60 to 80 calls a year.
About 80% of the department's calls are rescue calls as opposed to fires. This includes accidents and medical calls.
Swan is worried the department could find itself in a situation where there aren't enough people to respond.
"When we don't have enough firefighters, it adds to the response time. We have to rely on mutual aid and automatic mutual aid, just like other communities have to rely on us for the same problems," he said. "We're trying to eliminate the longer response times and to make sure and guarantee that we're going to have firefighters there, not only on your fires but on all the other emergencies as well."
In order to alleviate its struggles, Colona is proposing a rescue tax on the June 28 primary ballot. Henry County residents will vote yes or no to the following question:
Shall the Colona Community Fire Protection District levy a special tax at a rate not to exceed 0.10% of the value of all taxable property within the district as equalized or assessed by the Department of Revenue for the purpose of providing funds to pay for the costs of emergency and rescue crews and equipment?
"Nobody likes taxes, and tell you, I don't like taxes either," Swan said. "But I'd like to be protected. And I think this is one important tax levy that we need to address. We have never really addressed this in 75 years, and it's time that we do because of the shortages we have."
Swan said if passed, the tax would generate less than $40 a year on a home with a market value of $100,000.
The money can be used to hire two firefighters to be paid to work full-time during the daytime. The positions would be paid $15 or $16 an hour.
The department also has applied for a SAFER Grant that can be used to get the new paid positions started because if the proposed tax passes, it will be a year before the department starts generating revenue from it.
Swan said ideally he would like to have 30 firefighters on staff.