When taxing bodies fight in court, taxpayers lose.
That’s a lesson many haven’t forgotten after the years-long legal fight over the Crystal Lake South High School bleachers.
Fresh off that costly battle, we were dismayed to see another intergovernmental lawsuit filed involving Crystal Lake entities. The Crystal Lake Foreign Fire Insurance Tax Board and the city’s firefighters labor union are taking the city to court for nixing a tax fund that benefits the Crystal Lake Fire Rescue Department.
Crystal Lake firefighters need to be responsible in how they spend money they get through the foreign fire insurance tax, and both parties need to do what they can to avoid mounting legal bills that residents could end up paying if the costs aren’t covered by insurance.
Firefighters filed the lawsuit Aug. 2 against the city and numerous city officials, alleging that they violated state laws when they zeroed out the foreign fire insurance tax imposed on out-of-state insurance companies. The tax collects more than $60,000 a year.
Since 2003, the Illinois Municipal League has collected and turned over more than $780,000 in foreign fire tax fees to the city, according to the lawsuit filed by the firefighters union.
The foreign fire tax is imposed for the purpose of providing “maintenance, use and benefit” of the Crystal Lake Fire Rescue Department, including buying and maintaining equipment for firefighting, training and conditioning; and covering training or certification fees authorized by the fire rescue chief, according to city code.
The intended use of the tax funds – for “maintenance, use and benefit” of the department – could be broadly construed to include just about anything that helps firefighters. And that’s what the firefighters and their lawyers are claiming.
In the past, the city’s foreign fire tax funds have been used to buy exercise equipment and a new firehouse alert system in all three of the city’s fire stations. Funds also have helped buy additional equipment to re-outfit a reserve fire engine, new hydraulic equipment for extrication, carbon monoxide monitors and backup firefighting suits. We think this is the proper way to spend money from this fund.
However, the firefighters have tried to spend the money on everything from duffel bags and Fitbits to gym memberships and custom-roasted coffee beans. Although this may be what some firefighters want, we hardly think it is the best way to spend this money.
The latest expense the union-controlled tax board approved was about $57,000 for legal services. Exactly what that money is to be used for isn’t clear from meeting minutes, and the union and its attorneys have declined to comment publicly on the matter. That amount of money would use up nearly all of the estimated $61,000 the tax board collects each year, Crystal Lake finance director George Koczwara has said.
Suing the city over a disagreement about coffee beans is the worst way to spend this money. Public funds must be put to good use, especially at a time when local residents shoulder a crushing tax burden.
The Crystal Lake firefighters union, International Association of Firefighters Local 3926, public position here is undercut further by the March incident at a local bar that ended with nine firefighters facing disciplinary action, including two who were arrested.
One of the two facing criminal charges is Timothy Kerley, the union’s president. He was arrested on aggravated assault and disorderly conduct charges. Firefighter Adam Fowles is accused of drunkenly groping a woman and insulting her when she rejected his advances, according to court records. Fowles was charged with aggravated battery in a public place, a felony.
We see no good coming from this legal dispute. Even if insurance companies end up picking up the legal tabs for both sides, taxpayers still lose. If the legal bills get passed on to taxpayers, either directly or through higher insurance premiums, that loss is further compounded.
The union should drop its lawsuit and find a way to work productively with the Crystal Lake City Council.