CHAMPAIGN — Voters in two parts of unincorporated southwest Champaign will be asked to make what one resident is calling a "life-safety" decision when they go to the polls in March.
For years, residents in the Rolling Acres and part of the Cherry Hills subdivisions have been receiving fire protection from the village of Savoy, but administrators with the city of Champaign are now invoking a decades-old agreement and asking Savoy officials to stop providing that service.
Referendums on the March 20 ballot will ask hundreds of voters whether they would be willing to pay roughly $85 more annually for faster fire service from Champaign, and the alternatives to that option are limited.
"We've got older folks in the neighborhood, we've got kids, we've got aging homes," said Bob Richardson, a trustee for the Rolling Acres Fire Protection District.
Champaign Fire Chief Doug Forsman said his Department can provide faster response time simply by virtue of distance. In 2005, the city built Fire Station 6 in southwest Champaign to serve the developing area.
For decades, the two fire districts have contracted with Savoy for protection. It was cheaper than Champaign, and it's not too far away.
But Champaign city officials have asked the village of Savoy to stop providing those services. The two municipalities in 1992 agreed on a boundary line that sets a limit on how far each may develop, and part of the agreement was that neither provide fire service on the opposite side of that line.
The two unincorporated areas are on the Champaign side of that boundary. Despite the 1992 agreement, the city of Champaign for years has allowed the two fire protection districts to receive coverage from the village of Savoy.
Now Champaign officials are calling that agreement into action. Administrators say the city will provide fire service, but at a higher cost.
For Rolling Acres residents, the cost of fire and medical service would more than triple — an extra $90 annually for the owner of a $100,000 home. It would nearly triple for Cherry Hills residents, too — an extra $85 annually for the owner of a $100,000 home there.
Between the two areas, nearly 300 properties will be affected.
"The boundary agreement was based on the premise that we wanted to grow the services in the two communities in a logical way," Forsman said. "We've now built Station 6 out there, and it's able to provide quicker services than ... Savoy, just by virtue of distance."
The added property tax revenue would net roughly $71,000 for the city of Champaign. Forsman compared that with the cost of salary and benefits for one firefighter, which is about $100,000.
"In the long run, it's not going to be a huge amount," Forsman said.
Residents have alternative views on the question. Richardson said he delivered a survey to all 165 affected properties in his Rolling Acres subdivision. He said 45 responded, and 30 of those people wanted to contract for fire service with Champaign at the higher cost.
There's essentially only one alternative if voters reject the question. They can contract with the Tolono Fire District, but they'll need to be prepared to wait a little longer for a response.
For some like John Olson, who is organizing an effort against Champaign's proposal, the extra minutes are not worth the extra cost.
"I understand that the Champaign firefighters have at least the basic EMT credentials," Olson said. "Would it be worth it to me? Perhaps. But not at three times the price, and not being jammed down our throats."
The proposal is being "jammed down" his throat, he said, because Champaign officials have barred the village of Savoy from providing fire service, and Savoy officials have complied. The arrangement leaves residents with few options, he said.
"The city of Champaign has decided that they want to take over fire service for areas of the township that aren't within the city limits, and they've gone out of their way to eliminate any competition," Olson said.
Richardson said he would be satisfied without any change — but it's clear now that's not an option.
"We're not unhappy with Savoy at all," he said. "If we could keep Savoy, I'd be satisfied with it, too."
But the choices they have been given will have a profound effect on the neighborhoods' safety, he said. He is emphasizing that residents vote on the question, and wants to remind them that fire doubles in size every minute.
"My concern is we're dealing with life-safety," he said.