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South Beloit facing tough decisions regarding fire, police services

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In the midst of a financial crisis, South Beloit city officials are exploring the option of outsourcing fire and police services to the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department. According to Mayor Ted Rehl, the town is far from making a decision, as they are still unsure if such a move is even feasible given South Beloit’s current fiscal situation.

South Beloit, a small community located just south of the Illinois-Wisconsin state line, has seen its revenue shrink rapidly over the past decade, and the city of 7,770 has hit a new low in 2016. According to the Illinois Department of Revenue, South Beloit made $1.4 million in sales tax revenue in 2008, a number which has dropped to just $779,635 in 2016, resulting in a whopping 45.6 percent decrease. The city collects most of its revenue from truck stops and filling stations, such as the Flying J (16049 Willowbrook Road) and the Road Ranger Pilot (6070 Gardner Street), which are typically the best sources of income due to their proximity to Interstate 90.

Rehl is reluctant to go through with the plan, but with South Beloit’s pockets becoming increasingly thin, he and city commissioners are considering all cost-saving options. South Beloit’s operating budget is roughly $5 million, and $1.5 million of that funds the operations of the police department. This includes the salaries of 10 full-time officers, two sergeants, a chief, and a deputy chief.

While Rehl admits that South Beloit is a very poor city at the moment, he says the community is “not going to get rich on the backs of our police officers.” Rehl listed three conditions he believes must be met in order to strike an agreement with Winnebago County: all of South Beloit’s current officers need to have jobs when all is said and done, regardless of the outcome, the rights of South Beloit’s officers must be protected, meaning their years of service must be recognized by the union representing county deputies, and South Beloit will still require the same level of around-the-clock service that it currently receives.

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It has yet to be determined whether South Beloit’s officers would be able to keep their seniority should the city follow through with the plan. Six of the city’s patrol officers, one sergeant, and the deputy chief have 10 or more years of service. The other sergeant and one more patrol officer will reach 10 years of service in October. All of South Beloit’s officers belong to the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).

In November 2015, the Sheriff’s Department sought to recruit officers who had already been trained by other law enforcement agencies in the region. This was done in an attempt to increase staff levels at the lowest possible cost. These recruits, known as “lateral hires,” were required to have completed the 400-hour basic law enforcement academy course and mandatory firearms training. They also needed to pass a background check, psychological assessment, and medical exam in order to be eligible for hire. Once hired, the lateral hires were placed at the bottom of the seniority list and pay scale. However, nearly a year later, it seems this was a failed endeavor for Winnebago County, particularly South Beloit.

While there hasn’t been as much talk regarding its situation, it’s clear that South Beloit’s fire department is headed in the same direction. City leaders decided in June to switch from a fire department-based dispatch service to a hospital-based service to save money. The department-based service was averaging $200 per call, while the new hospital-based service was less than $7 a call. This was a no-brainer for South Beloit, as the new service would save the city over $150,000 a year. However, as a result, four members of the department who worked in dispatch­ — two full-time and two part-time — lost their jobs.

The South Beloit City Council made an agreement in November of 2015 for Firescope Mid-America, a Colorado-based consulting service, to do a study of the fire department and look at some cost-saving options. Firescope made a few recommendations, most of which involved South Beloit contracting its fire services elsewhere, such as the City of Rockford Fire Department, the Rockton Fire Protection District, and the Harlem-Roscoe Fire Department. Rehl said Firescope’s recommendations would not necessarily dictate which direction South Beloit decides to go with its fire services, but rather gave the city council a frame of reference when considering other options.

As a city struggling mightily with its budget, South Beloit will likely have to make a decision sooner rather than later regarding its fire and police services. However, it remains to be seen whether the city’s tight budget will keep Rehl and city officials from making their preferred decision.

Sources: Beloit Daily News, WREX, Rockford Register Star

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