PERU -- After more than five years of budget proposals, grant applications and sometimes-contentious town meetings, the Peru Volunteer Fire Department finally has a building worthy of its members, according to Chief Eric Autenrieth.
Autenrieth, a 30-year veteran of the department, said the annual number of fire calls has nearly doubled -- from 34 when he took over as chief five years ago to 65 last year.
But even as the number of calls increased, the department's volunteers continued to work out of outdated and inadequate quarters.
The new $550,000 building, which was completed last month, has four bays -- one for each of the department's vehicles -- as well as a training and meeting room, and for the first time, a laundry room and bathrooms for the firefighters.
"We finally have a place to sit, bathrooms and now we can go on a call and come back to the station instead of contaminating our homes," he said. "Every call we go out on we can be exposed to any number of blood-born pathogens, feces, HIV, hepatitis, suit, oils, and we'd have to bring that back to our homes because there was no place to properly clean our gear afterwards. These guys aren't getting paid, so they should at least have a place to change after a call without having to contaminate their own houses."
The previous fire house, built sometime in the mid 1950s, didn't have access to running water.
It also didn't have heat until 20 years after it was built, so during the winter, all the equipment and vehicles had to be put in storage and Peru residents had to rely on the Hinsdale Fire Department, said Autenrieth, who joined the department when he was 13.
Plans for the new 4,400-square-foot firehouse faced numerous challenges in recent years, and the project was nearly killed several times.
The initial cost of the project was estimated at $650,000, but it had to be scaled back after voters rejected spending on the project in the face of concerns about the plan.
Two years ago, residents voted to set aside $250,000 for the project with the idea that the remainder would be borrowed from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program.
But when the project went before the voters asking for $650,000 the following year, with $100,000 to be covered by a grant, it was rejected because residents said there wasn't enough specifics about the building plan.
‘There's no money for it'
Autenrieth said uncertainty about the government's application process prevented the town from further developing the building plans -- and incurring the associated costs.
"We had exhausted all other options," he said. "We applied for grants, asked local and state politicians and the answer was always the same, ‘there's no money for it.' Even FEMA couldn't help us get funding."
The department was also denied funding through a national grant system dedicated to help fire departments. Instead of helping the 14-person crew finally get a viable building, the money instead went to the Los Angeles Fire Department to help it build its 34th and 35th stations.
"It was a difficult pill to swallow," Autenrieth said. "I understand the money needs to help the most people, but there's already so many departments in the that city and they're full-time firefighters who get funded by the city's taxes; we don't."
Eventually a couple of contractors agreed to provide rough estimates of what the new station would cost and came up with $450,000. When the bid process was finished however, the lowest figure was more than $100,000 more, despite the lower cost of building materials.
"We were ready to give up," he said. "There must have been 150 people who showed up for that meeting and I figured they were all against the project. How was I going to tell them we need even more money?"
Inside the packed Community Center room, Autenrieth spent about a half-hour answering questions about the project and probably would have continued to do so until a chant began at the back of the room. The chant, "vote, vote, vote," was mild at first but quickly enveloped the room.
The resolution passed resoundingly by more than 100 votes.
Now, instead of having to walk sideways around the vehicles crammed 8 inches from the door, each can be worked on and has more than a 3-foot buffer between the others.
A park at the rear of the parcel, containing a basketball court so uneven you couldn't dribble a ball, will soon be converted in a parking lot and the Peru Recreation Association has already set out plans to improve the park, baseball field and activity area, Autenrieth said.
The old station and the building will be returned to its previous owner, the Dewkett family, who plan to turn it into a storage facility.
"It still feels like we're going to someone else's department," he said. "But we couldn't be happier."
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