I think the fire department and Northwestern have worked very well together on many avenues,” he said. “They provide a training facility for us. They provide their expertise and their Hazmat [Hazardous Materials Management] division. They provide venues for us when we hold seminars. They’ve made donations to us multiple times.
“I’m a resident,” he offered. “I get it [the fee proposal]. But I think we have other ways of doing it.”
Working well together
Reid questioned whether a fee would serve as a deterrent to people calling for emergency service.
If “I’m a student, I’m a teacher, I call 911,” he said. “I don’t think that I would even be aware of these fees, nor concerned if there’s an emergency, Northwestern would have to pay for me utilizing the service.”
Polep agreed that if a student called that might not happen. But he expressed concern that if a fee was imposed, costing an entity a certain amount of money, higher-ups, or whoever is managing the building might put out word that if a fire alarm goes off, they be contacted first, “because I want to check this out before you call the fire department.”
That can lead to many bad things,” he said.
Reid asked the fire chief if it was his opinion that the university was paying its fair share for fire service, which earlier in the budget process, responding to a question, Polep estimated to be somewhere in the range of $850,000 to $900,000 annually.
“So my opinion on this is: I feel we can engage in more conversation with Northwestern,” Polep said, “and I feel we can come up with something that’s going to work for all of us without putting any type of fear or feeling of any type of person calling 911 for assistance.
“And I think if given direction by the City Council or the city manager, I’d be happy to engage in conversations. I think we have a wonderful relationship with Northwestern, if this is the entity we’re talking about.”
Reid pointed to other towns which have implemented similar systems. “Maywood, for example, has fire service fees and they charge based on the service utilized, so [for a] car fire there’s one fee, if there’s a building structural fire there’s another fee, depending on the size of the building and the intensity of the fire and the resources utilized,” Reid said. “And so this is something that we are legally able to do. It’s something that residents have been calling for, for a long time.”
More comprehensive approach
In wider council discussion, Council Member Clare Kelly (1st Ward) said she agreed with Polep. “I don’t think we should be collecting via service calls. So I think this fits into a much larger comprehensive discussion. And quite frankly that ball is already in motion.”
Kelly said as opposed to a piecemeal approach, “I think we do need to sit down in a collaborative, voluntary way.” She noted that she made a referral last year to begin a discussion with all of the largest tax-exempt entities. She said she has asked that the issue be placed on the city’s Finance & Budget Committee in January.
“I think that’s really the way to proceed, with folks sitting at the table, again, in a very collaborative way that we decide together, as they’ve done in cities across the nation,” she said.
Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th Ward) also spoke in support of moving in the direction Kelly suggested.
“I think that’s the best approach to leverage our relationship, our increasingly productive and collaborative relationship with Northwestern, and let’s see if we can negotiate a fire service agreement,” he said.
“This was an idea on the table when I was talking with Northwestern about the memorandum of understanding,” he said. “It was part of the stadium package. It did not make the final cut. I will interpret that as leaving the door open for additional discussions.”
Council member Thomas Suffredin (6th Ward) though, suggested that the view of the issue advanced by Nieuwsma, “‘I’m saying no but I’m leaving the door open,’ might also be interpreted as ‘I’m saying no because I’m saying no.’ And then five people up here flushed our leverage,” he said. He was referring to council’s approval of the university’s $800 million Ryan Field project at its last meeting.
The proposal cleared the way for the university to hold six full capacity concerts and up to 60 smaller events annually once the stadium is rebuilt.
Mayor Daniel Biss cast the tie-breaking vote on the development, joining Harris, Nieuwsma, Reid and Bobby Burns (5th Ward) in support of the proposal.
“I think the fact that they [Northwestern] said no when the stadium was in the balance doesn’t bode well for the fact that they’ll say yes voluntarily,” Suffredin said. “But I challenge them to do that.”