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Sunday, February 23, 2020

Appeals panel: Ambulance tax referendum legal, even if adequate similar service already provided in region by other agency

State Court

By Scott Holland | Jan 17, 2020


ELGIN — A three-justice panel of the Illinois Second District Appellate Court has ruled that a Downstate fire protection district can move ahead with a referendum to fund expanded services, even though another agency already serves the territory it seeks to add.

In December 2018, North Boone Fire Protection District 3 voted to place on the April 2019 primary ballot a question asking voters to approve a new tax so it could provide ambulance service in and around Poplar Grove, a growing community Boone County. The Capron Rescue Squad District, known as North Boone Emergency Medical Services, filed a complaint in January seeking to block that referendum under the Fire Protection Act because North Boone EMS already provided ambulance service in the entirety of District 3.

Boone County Circuit Court Judge John Young did not interrupt the vote, which passed, and ultimately dismissed North Boone EMS’ complaint. Justice Kathryn Zenoff wrote the panel’s opinion on North Boone EMS’ appeal, issued Dec. 27. Justices Robert McLaren and Susan Hutchinson concurred.

On appeal, North Boone EMS raised only one issue — that Young should not have dismissed the part of its complaint seeking a declaratory judgment that a new tax referendum is improper without a finding that no adequate ambulance services exist. The panel said that the end of an election usually renders a ballot lawsuit moot, since a court cannot grant effective relief. 

But that changes when a significant public interest is present, and Zenoff wrote that “as the question involves election law, it is inherently a matter of public concern” and also an instance where establishing precedent could resolve future disputes.   

North Boone EMS insisted the Fire Protection Act allowed taxing for ambulance services only when “adequate and continuing emergency ambulance services do not exist.” The panel noted that the act indicates a preference for private ambulance services where economically feasible.

However, the justices reviewed the entire statute and determined that lawmakers did not include any “language requiring formal findings of fact regarding the adequacy of ambulance services in a fire protection district before it may add a ballot question proposing a new tax for such services,” Zenoff wrote.

Although the panel could have agreed with North Boone EMS’ assertion the Illinois Department of Public Health has the ability to determine ambulance service adequacy, it said the appeal “is asking that we find fault for failing to comply with a requirement that does not exist.”

The panel affirmed Young’s ruling, ending the lawsuit.

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17th Judicial Circuit Court - Boone County CourthouseIllinois Second District Appellate Court

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