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Jeff Ward: Fire district’s land request could get fiery a reaction

Jeff Ward

Jeff Ward

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Updated: August 3, 2011 6:42PM

Some questions you just don’t ask.

“Can I borrow your toothbrush?” will never go over very well. Considering our obesity epidemic, a simple “Are you pregnant?” can get you into a world of trouble. Whispering “How old are you?” to that nice lady sitting next to you at church probably will get you slapped.

But the question that tops my ridiculous list is the one where a fire protection district asks a school system to give it free land. I know you’re thinking, “Oh no, they didn’t,” but I’m here to tell you, “Oh yes, they did.”

We’ve already covered the more interesting travails our fledgling Fox River & Countryside Fire/Rescue District, which recently broke off from St. Charles Countryside and now covers Campton Hills, Wayne and nearby townships.

Fire district board President Jim Gaffney’s “I don’t have to answer to anyone” arrogance not only got the villages of Campton Hills and South Elgin to stop construction of the district’s two fire stations temporarily, but also won him the enmity of fire protection districts across the entire Fox Valley.

Had the fire district asked to purchase land from St. Charles School District 303 for a potential future fire station, you wouldn’t be reading this. But when reporters asked FRCFRD Chief Greg Benson about the deal, he replied, “Ideally, that is what we’d prefer — for them to donate it.”

That really does take the cake.

Since I’ve been the one clamoring for some sort of fiscal sanity on city councils and school boards, in turn, I’ll be the first one to defend them here. With home assessments plummeting but property taxes soaring, the last thing any school board should have to consider is whether to give away a solid asset like land.

In fact, District 303 Superintendent Don Schlomann told me, “Any time you give away a school asset, you better have a good reason.” The superintendent is the master of understatement.

Just imagine anyone on the District 303 school board issuing the following proclamation: “We just voted to bestow a free parcel of land upon the FRCFRD. Oh, and by the way, we just raised your property taxes by another $500.” That board had better be one great group of sprinters.

Not to mention this request runs contrary to Gaffney’s previous assurances that the new fire district was on the soundest of financial footings. Isn’t having to ask a school district for free land a lot like asking country singer Willie Nelson for a loan? You better line up behind his angry creditors first.

But it gets worse. I’m sure my smarter readers already have surmised that Gaffney’s public service goes beyond the FRCFRD. That’s right, he’s also a proud member of the St. Charles school board. The fact he would beg for this land in the face of that massive conflict of interest is so far beyond the pale that words fail me.

“There’s a process for when those requests come through,” Schlomann said, “We recognized the conflict of interest, so we took this to a board committee that doesn’t include Jim Gaffney.”

District 303 board President Steve Spurling added, “We work with a lot of government agencies and like to show them the courtesy of cooperation. Everyone has the right to ask the question. I’d trust the board to hear the facts and trust their judgment.” He also said Gaffney would be removed from that process.

Fair enough.

But does taking Gaffney out of the discussion and final vote even begin to mitigate the conflict? Even if he quit the school board prior to this inquiry — which would have been the right thing to do — can you summarily dismiss a decade of relationships built by serving on that board? If that feat was possible, and if the District 303 board ceded that land for all the right reasons, how could they possibly come out looking good in the taxpayers’ eyes?

Give away that land for any reason, and the words “mob,” “pitchforks” and “torches” come to mind.

I emailed both Gaffney and Benson in the hope of further exploring their side of the story, but apparently I’m off their Christmas card list. What could they possibly say to make themselves look better anyway?

I understand the need for school boards to engage the process when requests like this come through. But behind closed doors, and after they recover from laughing their butts off, I certainly hope they issue a polite one-word response: “No!”

The truth is, a nastier response would be far more appropriate.

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