Head of fire union lambasts mayor over layoffs
By Stuart R. Wahlin
Flanked by a gallery full of off-duty firemen, E.J. Dilonardo, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 413, railed against 30 layoffs scheduled by the city for Oct. 2, eight of whom are new firefighters hired in May.
“I am not here to talk to you like an old-time union boss with the only objective being to save their jobs,” Dilonardo told aldermen. “I’m here to tell you the laying-off of these firefighters will cost the city more money, and will put the community and firefighters in harm’s way. …The cumulative effect of these layoffs will drastically reduce public safety and public service.”
The remaining 22 layoffs are expected to be borne by the Public Works and Police departments.
“Because this administration did not hire the recruits we speak of today, until May, the city expends over $500,000 in unnecessary overtime,” Dilonardo indicated. “The taxpayers did not pay for this poor decision—the non-union employees did through mandated furlough days.”
Dilonardo said the investments to train and outfit the eight rookie firefighters were $131,999 and $31,520, respectively.
“Three of these individuals are paramedics,” he noted. “Their continued employment saves the city approximately $60,000 in paramedic training dollars. These firefighters were hired because it was deemed less expensive than paying for the overtime. Now, we are going to lay them off before they have six months on the job. The last three months of this year alone will cost the city more in overtime than what it will cost to keep them on duty.
“What is different today than when they were hired? They have become chess pieces in a game that’s being played,” Dilonardo alleged. “The last letter received from the city asked the firefighters to contribute dollars and other concessions to the city so they could lay these firefighters off, and not have it cost more money. The city is not saying, ‘Save us money and we will not decrease public safety.’ The city is saying, ‘Give us money so we can decrease the number of firefighters and decrease the level of service to the community and we will not have to spend more taxpayers’ money to do it.’”
Dilonardo pledged firefighters will not “trade away public safety” by decreasing the number of personnel on duty or the minimum staffing of four firemen per truck.
“The firefighters recognized these tough economic problems well before anyone started to talk about deficits,” he added. “This is why, in October and November of 2008, we offered the largest non-negotiated concessions in the history of the firefighters’ union. The firefighters have offered the city upwards of $3 million in savings.”
Dilonardo indicated the savings opportunities offered included wage freezes for 2009 and 2010, plus the equivalent of three furlough days for each firefighter annually. Dilonardo reported the offers fell on deaf ears, however.
In the most recent mayoral election, IAFF Local 413 threw its support behind Democratic challenger Doug Block after Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) pushed for reduced staffing on fire trucks. Aldermen, many of whom were also up for re-election, resisted the unpopular minimum staffing reduction by finding cuts elsewhere, namely at the expense of non-union employees and through increased ambulance fees.
With every incumbent having been re-elected in April, however, the city still looks to reduce its public safety and public works payrolls.
“I have been told the mayor has been informed the layoff of eight firefighters will cost the city money and that his comments were that he knew this, and the firefighters simply needed to be taught a lesson,” Dilonardo alleged. “These recent actions are no more than bush-league-bully-negotiating tactics, and should be recognized as just that.”
Arbitration is scheduled to begin Sept. 30—two days before the layoffs take effect.
“The line has been drawn, and we have not drawn it,” Dilonardo argued, pledging not to give in.
Reached for comment in China after Dilonardo’s remarks, Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) issued the following response by e-mail:
“I am very focused on getting this city through our country’s prolonged economic downturn and restructuring of our economy. We simply can’t do business the old way.
“I empathize with Mr. Dilonardo’s frustration. However, we can’t balance the budget solely on the backs of our non-union personnel. We have to be able to run all of our operations, and to ignore the majority of our costs which are in public safety is unrealistic.
“We have been looking for concessions from the fire union for months now. They still have time to offer their list of financial concessions. Right now, however, they are simply deflecting the focus, arguing that the city’s move will be more expensive than keeping the status quo, instead of offering a cost-savings option. Their approach seems to be ‘do nothing.’
“The status quo got us into this mess, however, and the city must be responsible to its citizens and develop better fiscal policy. This is not about a ‘tactic.’ This is about a promise we must keep with our citizens. We must be good financial and operational stewards. We must provide the best service at the best price. Since the city lost management rights in the past, this is a harder job than it should have to be. This means changes have to happen despite the fire union’s protests.
“The truth is we can maintain excellent public safety while balancing our budget. Look at the fire service in communities around Rockford for evidence of that fact. Loves Park relies on almost exclusively volunteer fire fighters, and does not even have an ambulance service. Instead, they rely on the free ambulance service provided by private ambulance companies.
“The concessions we seek in manning and operations can be agreed to voluntarily by the union, which is my hope. We have another route also, which is the scheduled fire arbitration between the city and the fire union.”
Aldermen went into closed session at the end of the Sept. 21 City council meeting to discuss collective bargaining negotiations.
From the September 23-29, 2009 issue
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