Fire union scores momentary victory to keep station open

By Stuart R. Wahlin
Staff Writer

July 13, 17th Circuit Judge Edward Prochaska granted a temporary restraining order blocking City of Rockford officials from closing a neighborhood fire station at Auburn and Sherman streets, at least until August. Meantime, the union wants an arbitrator to rule on the city’s proposal to close two stations by Jan. 1, 2011.

The decision came as the ongoing tension between Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 413 has hit its highest point since the mayor’s re-election campaign last year. But the argument hasn’t changed.

The Morrissey administration maintains that if the union isn’t willing to concede on the issue of one less firefighter on each truck, then the only opportunity to realize staff savings in the department without union consent is by eliminating two fire companies.

Per the collective bargaining agreement now in effect, the union requires four firefighters per engine and at least 64 on duty each day through 2011. If the union is unwilling to take Morrissey’s bait, however, closure of the stations may be the only option the city has to cut fire personnel in spite of the contract, which is why the union would rather put the matter in the hands of an arbitrator.

Although Station 8, 505 Sherman St., was originally to close July 1 to save $500,000 this year, public outcry against the closure caused the mayor to delay the shutdown for two weeks during the June 28 council meeting. The following day, IAFF 413 and station neighbors filed for a temporary restraining order to enjoin the city, mayor and Fire Chief Derek Bergsten from closing the station. According to IAFF 413 President E.J. Dilonardo, “The firefighters asked the court to rule to keep the station open while we ask an arbitrator to rule on the city action of permanently closing stations.”

Dilonardo suggested, however, that the city is resisting arbitration.

During a June 17 meeting with the city, Dilonardo reported, IAFF’s attorney suggested that, based on unyielding disagreement among the parties, the matter should go directly to arbitration to decide whether Station 8 and Station 3, 1520 S. Main St., slated for closure Jan. 1, 2011, should remain open. City Legal Director Patrick Hayes refused, according to Dilonardo.

Hayes, however, told The Rock River Times the city has not resisted arbitration.

“In fact, the union has delayed the arbitration by waiting until the last date possible under our contract grievance process to agree to meet to discuss the grievance, the last day possible to file the written final position of the union, and the last date possible to file the intent to arbitrate,” Hayes responded. “All together, this has delayed the arbitration by nearly a month. We have invited the union to select arbitrators and are awaiting their reply. The city believes the contract provides that it may reduce stations and thereby reduce daily manning and lay off firefighters due to budget issues.”

Meantime, the union clearly views arbitration as its best chance to resolve the issue in its favor.

“The city has taught us over the last five years that if we do not agree to every demand, we will need to look to the arbitration process, and thus we have,” Dilonardo noted. “We even had to force the city to take our offer of wage freezes for 2009 and 2010 in the arbitration process that yielded, by some accounts, up to $5.3 million in savings and an additional $250,000 per year, every year, into the future.”

Had no injunction been ordered, Hayes and Morrissey asserted they would have proceeded with the closure in short order.

The night before the ruling, Morrissey said: “My hand and interest is still out there to the fire union to try to see if we can work out some accommodation through the manning reduction that we’ve discussed. If not, then we will take the action that we discussed two weeks ago on the closure of the first fire station. That’s not something that I want to do. It’s something that we will be forced to do if we don’t have an option. And the options right now are, as we’ve discussed, in the hands of the union.”

Since the 1990s, the city has grown accustomed to four firefighters on every truck. As city Finance Director Andres Sammul has noted, however, the difference between four and three per truck is about $650,000 annually.

Station closures a red herring?

Hayes denied a suggestion that the proposed station closures have been a ruse all along to persuade firefighters to make concessions.

“The economic reality for the city is that we employ too many firefighters,” Hayes asserted. “If the union insists on four firefighters on an engine—a staffing level beyond most Illinois communities, including Aurora, Bloomington, Elgin, Joliet and Peoria—then the city needs to deploy fewer engines.”

The administration submits that, by reducing to three-person crews, there would be no need to close fire stations. Hayes noted the department safely operated with crews that size through the late ’90s.

The administration has wasted no time getting its message out. In a nutshell, the mayor is telling the public that firefighters are to blame if the closures proceed, because they are unwilling to share in the staff cuts forced throughout the rest of the city’s departments. Police, fire and public works, he says, account for about 90 percent of the city budget, and that it’s time for the union to share the responsibility of providing services taxpayers can afford.

Because the station closures would not require approval by aldermen, Morrissey would stand alone as the target of blame from outraged citizens. Instead, he has been trying to make the union share public pressure to rise victorious from an old dispute.

For the last couple years, Morrissey has argued that one less firefighter on each truck could amount to huge savings for the city. Facing a projected deficit of up to $8 million next year, he says, this savings opportunity simply cannot be ignored. He described this alternative to station closures as the “safest option.”

Even during his re-election campaign, Morrissey vowed he would continue his fight to reduce manning to three, even if there were no budget crisis.

With many of their own re-election campaigns in full swing in March 2009, during which time unions are more apt to make political contributions, aldermen balked at the mayor’s unpopular proposal when passing the 2009 budget. Instead, cuts were borne by non-union employees for the time being, but the city’s financial forecast is still gloomy through at least next year, and public safety is too juicy an apple for the administration to ignore.

As he promised during the June 28 Rockford City Council meeting, Morrissey has waged a public relations campaign, courtesy of the local media, to justify the need for cuts in the Fire Department, which has been asked to trim approximately $1.8 million from its 2011 budget of more than $35 million. Also in the public safety arena, the city is looking for more than $2 million in cuts from the Police Department.

The mayor isn’t alone in taking advantage of the opportunity to spin the debate in his favor, and the PR campaign isn’t taking any holidays. On Independence Day, the daily’s Web site published a letter from Ald. John Beck (R-12) to his constituents, pleading the administration’s case.

Beck stated the city has done everything it could to avert cuts to public safety in the past, but economic conditions simply require concessions by the union. There’s no other place to make the cuts, he added.

Morrissey and Beck say comparably-sized, wealthier cities make do with three firefighters per truck, adding only 30 percent of U.S. communities opt for a fourth crew member.

Morrissey argues the city needs to better align its resources to the needs of the community. In addition to reduced manning on fire trucks, the mayor favors more resources on the ambulance side, and less on fire suppression, based on the nature of calls. Last year, according to Bergsten, 280 calls were in response to structure fires, while more than 15,000 were for emergency medical services. Morrissey is also a proponent of outsourcing ambulance services.

All along, however, the union’s position has been that fewer firefighters mean greater risk, both to firemen and the public.

The mayor, meantime, suggests the Fire Department hasn’t made its fair share of sacrifices endured by other city departments.

Heading off possible suggestions by the union that the administration should make deeper cuts higher up, Morrissey issued a preemptive response.

“If you were to eliminate the entire mayor’s office, city council pay that we get, legal department, finance department, IT department and human resources department, it’d be under $7 million when we’re looking at a $5-$8 million deficit for next year,” the mayor argued. “When that’s [police, fire and public works] 90 percent of what you’re spending money on, it makes it really unrealistic. And financially, it’s not a path that is tenable.”

Dilonardo, however, asserted firefighters have made substantial sacrifices in recent years.

Firefighters painted into a corner

Dilonardo was quick to note the union offered savings through wage freezes in 2009 and 2010, and through furlough days every year for firefighters.

That counteroffer came at a time when the administration was threatening eight layoffs of rookie firefighters last year. The city offered an early-retirement package—which Dilonardo indicated saved the city more than $350,000—as a possible alternative to the layoffs, but the union would have to agree to either a reduced minimum staffing level, or a 7-percent wage reduction through 2010, to be promised no firefighters would be laid off.

An arbitrator ultimately ruled in favor of the union’s proposed wage freezes and furlough days, which Dilonardo says have saved the city nearly $3 million. Dilonardo also noted firefighters agreed to pay higher health insurance premiums, and that the department closed 2009 nearly $500,000 under budget.

He’s also quick to point out that the city has saved approximately $1 million by not filling vacant positions in the department. According to Bergsten, the department has four administrative vacancies and eight unfilled positions for fire suppression, meaning the department is operating with 12 fewer employees than budgeted for the year.

All told, Dilonardo argues, sacrifices by firefighters have resulted in nearly $5 million in savings in recent years. As for four firefighters per engine, Dilonardo maintains firefighters and the public have paid for that level of service.

Referring to the $1,837,600 budget reduction mandate he was handed, Chief Bergsten said he’s already reduced or eliminated costs related to capital expenditures, contracts and supplies, as well as “non-core” services, such as information technology, fire prevention education and inspections, and recruitment.

“We’re at the point now where reduction of personnel is our only option to achieve that amount of money we were given [to cut],” Bergsten said.

Should the union be unwilling to accept the reduced manning proposal, the city’s Plan B is to close the two fire stations to force a reduction of fire personnel. Bergsten explained the areas served by stations 3 and 8 would be absorbed by several surrounding stations that already overlap into their service areas, or stills.

Bergsten made no bones about it; closing the stations would increase response times throughout the city, because already busy companies would have larger areas to cover. Stations 3 and 8, he said, were marked for closure based on their lower volumes of calls.

“We’re trying to create the least amount of increased response time, and the increased risk to that area,” he said

But are there other options for saving money? Ald. Frank Beach (R-10) seems to think so.

July 12, Beach suggested city employees across the organization, including aldermen and the mayor’s office, consider a voluntary 5-percent pay cut.

“When you shake it out, as far as the adjustment of your taxes…there’s very little impact on the actual take-home pay. That would bring in over $5.3 million,” Beach said. “No jobs would be lost. You could, perhaps, say no fire stations close…if that could be done. But that would have to be a willingness on every single employee to do it.”

Cadet program on back burner

During his most recent State of the City address, the mayor also proposed a firefighter cadet program.

“This new cadet program is being examined as a way to achieve cost savings by introducing lower-cost approaches to meet our service needs,” he said. “We believe we can expand public safety and service by delivering and leveraging our full-time force with appropriate levels of volunteer and part-time cadet or auxiliary support.”

Morrissey explained, “Typically, the costs are lower, because they are paid for part-time work without incurring the same pension and insurance costs.”

But the union would also have to agree to the mayor’s plan. In 2007, an amended state law was passed that does not allow the city to meet staffing requirements with part-time personnel.

Hayes indicated the legislation gives the union “significant control over the inclusion of any volunteers or part-time firefighters as a staffing element for the department.”

Asked how the city could overcome that obstacle, Hayes responded: “Without discussions with the union, the nature of the program will need to be developed at a later date. We would only staff with fully-trained individuals, similar to our surrounding volunteer and paid on-call departments.  Whether they were paid or strictly volunteer would be part of that program development. The city believes that the program would capitalize on the ACE [American Council on Exercise] high school program that debuted last year and could help local students segue from school to volunteer to full-time fire fighters.”

From the July 14-20, 2010 issue

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