Recently, the village of North Riverside announced that it is exploring the potential to privatize our fire department by expanding our existing contract with PSI to include fire protection.
For 28 years, PSI has provided paramedic services in North Riverside, saving lives and working side-by-side with North Riverside firefighters to provide emergency response services to residents and businesses.
We have asked PSI to develop a proposal to offer employment to all of our village’s firefighters, maintaining current base salaries, earned pension benefits and health insurance, and offering a new 401(k) plan. This approach could generate savings of more than $700,000 per year and substantially reduce the adverse impact of future pension obligations.
To be clear, we will always put the health and safety of our village first — the lives, homes and businesses of North Riverside are our most important assets. PSI firefighters are trained and meet the certification standards established by the Illinois State Fire Marshall, and many are dual-certified as both firefighters and paramedics.
Like many other Illinois municipalities, North Riverside is faced with multiple financial challenges, including significant unfunded public pension obligations. An expanded contractual services partnership with PSI that includes fire protection services is the best of all worlds — allowing North Riverside to keep the strongest emergency and fire protection staff and services in place without having to sacrifice other village services or seek unaffordable tax increases to fully fund our public pension obligations.
A June 24 article in the Landmark encouraged the Village to consider other options, including the potential to either join an existing or create a new fire protection district with neighboring municipalities.
We did explore those options. There is no existing fire protection district close enough to North Riverside to provide vital emergency services to our residents and businesses. Creating a new fire protection district would require each participating municipality to place a public referendum on the ballot to authorize such action — the negotiations and planning associated with this approach would take years. Also, a separate fire district means another taxing body — something we don’t need for our residents.
Over the past nine years, North Riverside has cut costs and reduced staff, and more recently increased our municipal water rates to end the longtime deficit in the water fund. But it’s not enough. Even as we begin to take steps to fully fund our public pensions going forward, that obligation will continue to grow due to additional retirements, new hires, salary increases of active members, and payouts to retired firefighters and police officers who are collecting pensions. It’s just not sustainable.
A new state law requires all municipalities to fully fund their public pensions on a yearly basis by 2016. If we don’t comply, the state will take our sales tax revenue to fulfill our outstanding public pension obligations, which now total more than $27 million. This would be devastating to our village as local sales taxes represent 62 percent of our budgeted general operating revenue.
We all know that our fiscal problems were not created overnight. They have been years, and even decades in the making. This administration has been in place for just over a year, but we refuse to kick this problem even further down the road.
North Riverside must take bold action to explore innovative and timely solutions that will allow us to safeguard the safety and quality of life in our community, while building a more stable and fiscally sound future for our residents and businesses.
Hubert E. Hermanek Jr. is the mayor of North Riverside.