(TNS) — After the Springfield City Council tried to split the cost of green light traffic signal technology with an independent fire insurance board, the lights will "most likely" not go up before Christmas, according to Fire Chief Barry Helmerichs.
In November, Helmerichs asked the city council for $105,000 to install GPS-based units at 16 intersections along the Veterans Parkway corridor, starting at Wabash Avenue heading south. Helmerichs asked for a supplemental appropriation in order to get the technology in place before the retail-heavy area was inundated with drivers. Though there wasn't a high volume of calls from the area, it took firefighters twice the average time to respond, Helmerichs told the council.
"Blindsiding" Helmerichs, the city council voted to amend the request, signing off on using video gaming revenue for half the cost while asking for the other half to be paid for by an independent firefighter board known as the Springfield Foreign Fire Insurance Board. Out-of-state insurance companies pay a 2 percent tax on policies they sell in state, which is collected by the Illinois Municipal League and redistributed back to a foreign fire insurance board where the policy is bought. The seven board members, one of whom is the chief, vote on expenses at quarterly public meetings.
The city council asked for Springfield's Foreign Fire Insurance Board to schedule a special meeting to consider the expense to suit Helmerichs' timeline.
However, since the board is made up of firefighters on different shifts, a special meeting has not yet been worked out, according to board president Capt. Tony Burton. The board does have a regularly scheduled meeting in January to consider requests from firefighters who have recently changed firehouses with the new year.
Last month, the Springfield Foreign Fire Insurance Board got a check for about $235,400 for its year's take, leaving its balance at about $303,000.
The board is governed by a list of "appropriate" expenditures, instead of the broad guidelines defined in state law. Nowhere on the list is infrastructure, Burton said, which he consider the traffic signal technology to be.
"According to the bylaws, infrastructure is not our responsibility," Burton said. He added, "I've never seen the city we have to buy half without speaking a word to us."
As a firefighter who has served for more than 20 years, Burton said he has seen traffic signal technology come and go. He said he wanted to hear more about how the system would be maintained and what the efficacy of the system would be.
Helmerichs admitted that past signal technology placed on traffic lights within the city was not effective. Those systems were not GPS-based, nor did they have the range that current system does.
"Technology has gone leaps and bounds over what we did before," Helmerichs said.
Even though Springfield is in the thick of shopping season, Langfelder said in an interview that he hoped the board would still take a vote on its request.
"We need to move on if we have to," Langfelder said.
So what does the Foreign Fire Insurance Board buy?
Because all of the members are appointed, the board has policies in place to push back on the narrative that the Foreign Fire Insurance Fund is a firefighter "slush fund." In 2013, a Sangamon County Citizens Efficiency Commission panel recommended changes to Springfield's board, saying it had a lack of oversight.
"Some people over there call it a slush fund, but the board scrutinizes everything that's asked of it," Burton said. "Plus, the chief has veto power."
Burton said the board is audited every single year and both he and treasurer Eric Jaeger have to be bonded and licensed by the state as insurance against embezzlement.
In order for an item to be considered by the board, a majority of the firehouse has to approve. Whenever the city requests the board buy a piece of equipment, Helmerichs often would fill out a form and give a presentation.
Oftentimes, the money is used to replace worn items in the houses and equipment. In the last three years, the most expense item on the list was $70,000 for thermal imaging cameras that accompany every fire rig. The city put in $70,000 as well for the cameras. After that, the most expensive item is remodeling a fire house kitchen for about $32,000. To replace garage doors at the firehouses was about $23,600.
"We live in these houses," Jaeger said. "Any given day there's fifty guys living in these houses."
All of the defibrillators in the city were upgraded this year after the board approved $11,600 for the expense.
It bought a Zodiac rescue boat and trailer for the dive team, which cost about $11,000 and underwater sonar system for about $4,300. In the last year, firefighters have worked to recover three people who drowned in Lake Springfield, Burton said. During that time, they had to rely on the Department of Natural Resources for sonar and boats.
"We are better prepared today," Burton said. "... Bringing in the bodies brings closure to the families."
Every year, the board spends about $27,000 on Club Fit gym memberships for all of Springfield's firefighters. It also pays $9,000 to the city for 12 parking spots in garage attached to the downtown fire station.
©2017 The State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.