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Editorial: Taxpayers lost in collective bargaining shuffle

October 6, 2009

By Stuart R. Wahlin

Staff Writer

Facing a $4 million budget deficit by the end of this year, and an estimated $7.6 million shortfall for 2010, April re-election celebrations for Rockford’s mayor and aldermen were short-lived as the city’s financial health has worsened.

While trying to get an early jump on an especially challenging budget process, the mayor and aldermen are finding the problems haven’t gone away until the next election season.

By cutting the city’s 1,200-strong workforce by about 5 percent, officials say, approximately $4 million can be saved in the 2010 fiscal year.

Six months into his second term, Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) is still wrestling with the ghosts of the April election, namely the union lobby that challenged his re-election by way of labor representative Doug Block (D).

While seeking re-election, Morrissey proposed reducing the number of firefighters per truck from four to three—a politically risky move, but not one that cost him City Hall.

While passing the current budget in March—when most aldermen were also running for re-election—the council distanced itself from the mayor by resisting the unpopular cut. The move earned favor for aldermen aligned with unions, certainly, but the temporary fix belied the drastic cuts all of them should have known would be inevitable.

For the time being, non-union personnel would shoulder the burden, but all must have been aware the city’s union employees would also be asked to pay the piper.

Having safely retained their seats, and with three-and-a-half years left for voters to forget, aldermen are far more likely to sympathize with the mayor’s unyielding stance to reduce public safety costs.

There have been some positive stories, whether real or manufactured, about non-union employees accepting pay cuts in the name of saving their co-workers from layoffs. Police and fire personnel have now been faced with the same decision, but last-minute bargaining sessions failed to avert the Oct. 2 layoffs of approximately 30 city employees, about eight each from the Fire and Police departments.

In March and April, the unions presented their case for how the city should be run, and the voters decided to retain Morrissey. Despite the setback, the unions still appear to be trying to dictate the terms of a budget that’s out of their hands.

Police and firemen, about 300 of each, have been without contracts since January, but arbitration is under way.

Meantime, the mayor and aldermen have insulated themselves politically through a variety of advisory committees made up of private citizens, albeit ones whose livelihoods often depend on public dollars. It’s difficult to believe they won’t find room for greater efficiency in the Fire and Police departments, but the unions aren’t going to want to dance to the piper’s tune.

Fire

The city has grown comfortable with the four-firefighter model since the 1990s, but the difference between three and four is $650,000 per year, according to Finance Director Andres Sammul.

Although the reduction was forestalled in March, the council isn’t likely to continue ignoring a $650,000 opportunity.

More often than not, comparably-sized cities get by with three per truck, while about 30 percent nationwide opt for a fourth firefighter. Rockford is not in the 30 percent of communities that can afford the luxury, Morrissey maintains.

Even if there were no budget crisis, Morrissey said before his re-election, he would still favor three firemen per truck to provide more ambulance service. The election is over, but the debate isn’t.

Firefighters began arbitration at the end of September. As was the case with the police union, layoffs were not averted through counterproposals.

The city offered an early-retirement package as a potential means to avoid the Fire Department layoffs, but the deal also would have meant either a reduced minimum staffing level, or 7 percent wage reductions through next year. The city’s proposal would have guaranteed no layoffs, however.

E.J. Dilonardo, president of the firefighter union, has pledged to resist reduced staffing levels tooth-and-nail. He’s argued the move would put firefighters and the public at greater risk.

The layoffs of eight rookie firefighters are expected to save $105,684 by the end of this year, but Dilonardo pointed out the layoffs would actually result in higher costs to the city through overtime, unless the city is able to reduce minimum staffing levels accordingly. He further suggested the layoffs were more vindictive than a cost-saving measure. Based on the unions-versus-Morrissey landscape of the last election, the allegation is not far-fetched.

As an alternative, the union reportedly offered concessions of almost $3 million, about half of which would come from a pay freeze through next year. By 2011, however, it’s likely the union would be expecting retroactive raises it didn’t get in 2009 and 2010, so the offer was an easy one for the administration to reject.

Police

Although the city’s ad-hoc committees are numerous, they’re one in purpose—to save the city money amid the present recession. That means getting by with less, but Rockford can be a scary place, and the idea of a stretched-too-thin blue line doesn’t sit well with many. As Rockford leads the state in unemployment, it’s clear crime in our community isn’t taking a holiday anytime soon.

The administration and unions have been batting around token proposals to avoid layoffs, but neither side’s efforts have been genuine enough to keep these men and women employed.

The Police Department has been operating at a deficit of 13 officers whose vacancies will remain unfilled. Although eight police officers were originally targeted for the Oct. 2 layoffs, retirements of two veteran officers reduced the number of layoffs to six. Instead, the number of mandatory unfilled vacancies will be 15 through at least the 2010 fiscal year. The vacancies and layoffs are expected to save the department about $1.5 million—the same figure cited as savings achievable through a wage freeze.

Former mayoral candidate Block, having since returned to his post as a police union negotiator, suggested police jobs could be saved by temporarily dismantling specialized units, including Chief Chet Epperson’s M3 Street Team, and instead put those officers on patrol duty.

Block’s proposal appears to be a deliberate reflection of the rank-and-file’s longstanding disapproval of Epperson’s leadership. Also among Block’s suggested cuts were the Community Service Officer Unit, the Field Training Officer Program, as well as bike and ATV patrols.

It’s no secret Ald. Lenny Jacobson (D-6) supports the men and women in blue, but even Jacobson’s going to be a tough sell when you suggest doing away with the ATV Unit after a recent alleged attack by four-wheeling scofflaws.

Despite having obviously been crafted with resentment toward the mayor and police chief, there were valid points among the union’s proposals.

Block called for a moratorium on Morrissey’s beloved tax increment financing districts—a good idea aldermen ought to consider.

“With each TIF district the city creates, there is a decline in revenue for the city as the property taxes collected for the TIF area are frozen, with any new taxes going into the TIF district fund,” Block noted. “The city sells bonds to finance projects for the TIF districts, with the repayment for the bonds to be paid by any new property taxes received from the TIF district. …However, during the budget hearings held at City Hall during either February or March this year, the city finance director indicated the city will be obligated to pay for several bond payments for many years as the TIF districts are not generating enough new tax revenue to make the bond payments.

“The finance director indicated the TIF district bond payments will have to come from the general fund, and will be several million dollars each year for numerous years,” he added. “Every dollar spent from the general fund to make the payments for the TIF district bonds results in less funds for other city needs, such as personnel and equipment.”

The council has approved nearly two dozen TIFs, and is showing no signs of slowing down, despite increased indebtedness and a relative lack of return on the investments. If aldermen are unwilling to stand up for the taxpayers by putting a stop to new TIF districts, then maybe it’s time taxing bodies started standing up for themselves during the joint review process by saying “no” to more TIFs. TIF is costing them money, too, which means more cuts and layoffs, and less service.

To spare the officers facing layoffs, the city offered, a 7 percent across-the-board pay cut would be necessary. Not surprisingly, the union didn’t bite, and the layoffs have proceeded.

Aurelio Delarosa, the police union’s president, issued a letter to his membership Sept. 27. The letter, also provided to aldermen and the media, argued officers have been betrayed by the city they protect.

“The City of Rockford is hoping the unions will agree to concessions that will reduce the number of layoffs,” Delarosa wrote, noting layoffs would proceed despite the union’s display of good faith during negotiations. “We’re already understaffed, and these officers are some of the lowest paid in the agency. Yet, the City of Rockford will lay off officers as a result of their misspending. The City of Rockford is basically holding a gun to our heads during the bargaining sessions.”

Delarosa called Morrissey “a threat to the health and well-being of every person in this city.” He added, “Someone should start mayoral impeachment proceedings.”

A little drastic, don’t you think? Even if there were some impeachable offense, there’s no law on the books providing for our mayor’s impeachment, so let’s get real.

Notably, however, the union estimates the department destroyed about $750,000 worth of firearms from its evidence collection in the past year alone. Instead, they suggested a licensed dealer be contracted to turn the property into revenue. That’s a good idea, despite the anticipated rebuttals of “more guns on the streets.”

Frankly, we need more guns on the streets, but in the hands of law-abiding citizens. Now that’s real “community policing,” and something crime-ridden Rockford shouldn’t scoff at. The Wild West scenarios have proven untrue in the 48 states that have enacted carry laws, but Illinois and Wisconsin legislatures don’t feel their citizens can responsibly handle such a liberty.

After Winnebago County recently tested the waters for concealed carry, it’s clear a lot of people around here aren’t ready for it.

If Rockford is collectively uncomfortable with selling the weapons locally, there’s no reason they can’t be sold elsewhere. In any case, $750,000 is not small potatoes, and the city is throwing away money by destroying the confiscated firearms. There’s no reason for it. Destroying the guns is a futile exercise, because manufacturers will just make more.

Finding opportunities for savings outside the Police Department, Block suggested that recent administration salary increases—many of which were 10 percent or more—should be adjusted down to 4 percent. That has merit, too, and Morrissey’s administrators should certainly be sharing in the sacrifices everyone else is making. Furlough days and a couple unfilled vacancies here and there are not enough to persuade most Rockfordians that more can’t be done to trim fat from the top.

Metro-police concept

pulled out of the drawer again

By outsourcing police services to the county, proponents say, the city can save a lot of money.

With Winnebago County Sheriff’s deputies typically faring a little better with wage increases, it’s no wonder the city’s police union wants in on it. Plus, such a move would likely unseat Epperson as their commander.

If it’s of any comfort to those who are sick of study after study being commissioned by the city, Block is calling for one more.

In particular, he’d like to see a city-county feasibility study for what he called a Metro Law Enforcement Agency. If warranted after the study, Block added, the choice should be put to voters via referendum.

The concept is nothing new around here. The possibility of some cost savings and improved efficiency may be real, but the potential for corruption is too great to advocate this idea for Rockford and Winnebago County right now.

With the racially-charged matter of the Mark Anthony Barmore shooting still unresolved in Rockford, it’s not likely the county wants any part of a metro-police force right now, either. Regardless of how the Barmore investigation pans out, civil suits are sure to result, and those can be costly.

Just last month, the county parted with $15.5 million in damages resulting from a single traffic accident involving a deputy.

Yes, the city’s rank-and-file officers have some old friends who crossed over to county law enforcement, and it’s no secret these veterans don’t like the Morrissey-Epperson regime, either. Keeping the two entities separate will maintain a better balance of power, but there’s no reason they can’t work together to save some money and improve services for taxpayers.

In Winnebago County—which historically elects Democrats as sheriff—one would suspect Republicans might also have something to say about this notion of centralized power.

A political columnist over at the daily, a frequent cheerleader for the metro-police scenario, thinks it’s “a good idea” for the sheriff to take command of all sworn officers within the county. He suggested that because it is an elected position, the sheriff is more accountable than an appointed chief.

But let’s not forget Morrissey had a running mate in April—Chief Epperson. Elected officials are accountable for their appointees, and Morrissey survived his. That means something.

The police union has been making a lot of noise for years, because the flavor of the changes Epperson brought was not to their liking. But voters didn’t seem to mind in April.

Although a metro-police force is just going to be one of those things we talk about every couple years, like home rule, it does make sense for the city and county to work more closely to improve efficiency and eliminate overlapping services beyond the public safety arena.

By all means, if you believe our county government is more accountable than our city leaders, and less prone to corruption, then a metro force is the way to go. Should the police forces be consolidated, however, I suspect police union members will find the grass isn’t any greener on the other side.

We hear an awful lot about the interests of the administration, firefighters and police officers, while heavily-taxed Rockfordians seem to have been forgotten in the process. It’s time the administration and unions stow the campaign rhetoric until an election year. If both sides would be reasonable, no public safety jobs would have to be lost, taxes and fees wouldn’t have to be raised, and taxpayerswouldn’t have to pay more to recieve less.

It’s fair to say costly commitments to the MetroCentre played no small role in the financial mess. Elected officials need to atone for that, but not by decreasing the basic services our taxes demand.

From the October 7-13, 2009 issue

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