Highwood looks to big brother for services

Mayor talks upcoming development in the tiny town

by Long Hwa-shu

Tiny Highwood, known as the dining capital of Lake County, will close its fire department and outsource fire-fighting and emergency services to neighboring Highland Park as a way to save money and still maintain its acclaimed high quality services and safety standards.

The drastic measure which has been approved by the Highwood City Council is subject to voter approval of a referendum on the issue on March 15.

“We’re a small community with a limited budget. Yet we have all the departments of a big city to provide a high level of services our residents are used to. So we decided to look at services we can contract out,” said Mayor Charles Pecaro.

Highland Park, he said, shortly calling it a big brother, is “a good fit.” Highwood, less than a square mile in area with a population of 5,400 people, he explained, is “a small island surrounded by Highland Park.”

Its fire-fighting and emergency services haves already “overlapped” those of Highwood, he pointed out.

According to Highwood City Manager Scott Coren, Highwood explored the possibility of outsourcing such services to its neighbor some eight years ago but serious negotiations didn’t get underway until this summer.

Under an agreement thrashed out between the two neighboring cities, Highwood would pay $625,000 the first year for the services from Highland Park with the outlay to be adjusted annually according to inflation but no higher than three percent. Mayor Pecaro said his city stands to save $9.3 million over a 10-year period while still maintaining a high level of services and safety standards.

It would cost Highwood $1.3 million a year to operate its own fire department which is equipped with two fire engines and staffed by two full-time firefighters and several part-timers, according to Coren.

Highland Park has a much larger and well-equipped fire department which is nationally accredited, stressed Coren.

The Highwood Fire Department, they say, has agreed to the closing, subject to the settlement of certain labor issues. The cost for closing including payout has been estimated at $260,000.

The fire station at 428 Green Bay Road next to the Highwood Recreation Center is regarded as “a prime piece of property.”

Coren said, “We have not determined how to repurpose it until after the referendum.”

In other real estate news, the five-story Hotel Moraine, long vacant, is under remodeling for senior living with 104 units set for opening in spring. A grocery store will occupy 18,000 square feet on the ground floor. It will be the first major grocery store in the city. There could also be a restaurant opening there.

Meanwhile, the site of the Bocce Club just north of the Walgreens store is under consideration for an apartment complex with 300 units for as many as 600 to 800 residents, said the mayor. The club is expected to vacate the site and move to Bank Lane. If redeveloped according to plans, the ground floor of the complex will be for retail. Highwood will gain hundreds more shoppers as a result, Pecaro pointed out.

The former Bertucci’s restaurant at 246 Green Bay Road will make way for a music theater with seating for 375 people. A buyer has expressed an interest in acquiring the building nearby that formerly housed the former Bridie McKenna Irish restaurant.

In an effort to halt the conversion of single-family homes to duplexes and multi-family units, Highwood is moving to rezone its residential neighborhoods to restore the status of single-family homes. Mayor Pecaro pointed out that most of the single-family homes are on small city lots and conversion into higher density dwelling not only adds to crowding but strains the city’s resources.

To underline that Highwood is on the go, Pecaro who has been mayor for six years said the city has issued about $4 million in bonds to rebuild its infrastructure including resurfacing roads and repairing sidewalks.

“We’re taking advantage of the low interest rates,” he said, pointing out that Highwood is fiscally sound with reserves enough to operate the city for three months without revenue.

“We’re one of the most stable communities in the state,” he said.

 

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