North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. announced via press release Wednesday afternoon that negotiations with the village’s union firefighters were at an impasse and that he was “working on other options, including privatizing our fire protection services.”
While the press release did not state explicitly that the village immediately would be pursuing privatization, that is the only option presented.
But, in a separate interview Wednesday, Hermanek indicated that the village would indeed begin moving toward privatization. He also said the changeover should be completed sometime this fall.
“I’d be disappointed if by November, one way or another, it wouldn’t be fully implemented,” said Hermanek.
Hermanek in June pitched a plan to hire Paramedic Services of Illinois, which has provided paramedics to North Riverside for 28 years, to handle all fire protection services. The switch would relieve North Riverside of an ever-growing fire pension burden, Hermanek argued.
“This cost-effective option will provide the same — or enhanced — quality fire protection services our residents and businesses expect and deserve,” Hermanek states in the press release. “In order to maintain this service, we must realize significant cost savings where we can — through lower overtime costs due to the cross-training of staff and reduced future public pension obligations.”
With the assistance of a federal mediator, the village and representatives from the firefighters union held their latest negotiating session on Tuesday afternoon. Firefighters have been working without a contract since April 30.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the union was to present a counter offer to the village’s latest proposal. That village proposal was a “progressive privatization” scheme that would play out over 11 years.
During that time, according to the press release, 10 of the department’s 14 union firefighters would reach retirement age and 25 years of service. Those firefighters would be allowed to retire with full pension benefits. As they left the department, they would be replaced by PSI-provided firefighter/paramedics.
“As a result, by the end of this 11-year contract, village fire and emergency protection services would be almost fully privatized, maintaining safe and reliable service, while achieving the cost-savings the village must have to remain solvent,” Hermanek states in the press release.
The union rejected the progressive privatization option, countering with three other proposals, including one that mirrored the village’s privatization plan. In that scenario, the fire union would form a private corporation to provide fire protection and paramedic services to the village.
The village rejected that option outright.
“The village is unwilling to take a risk to turn over the responsibility for the fire safety of our residents and businesses to a start-up company that doesn’t even currently exist,” said Hermanek in the press release.
Rick Urbinati, president of North Riverside Firefighter Union Local 2714, said the village also rejected that proposal and also one calling for consolidation with other municipal departments.
On Friday, firefighters from North Riverside and neighboring towns are scheduled to meet in Berwyn on the subject of consolidation. Urbinati said that firefighters may soon be gathering signatures on a petition to put consolidation on the spring 2015 ballot.
Despite the village’s decision to declare an impasse, Urbinati said firefighters don’t believe there is an impasse and maintain the village can’t simply lay them off.
“We have a contract that’s still in force,” said Urbinati. “This has to go to interest arbitration.”
Hermanek characterized the village’s progressive privatization offer as an “extreme compromise,” and said the village had done everything it could to present viable alternatives to the union.
But Urbinati rejected that claim, saying that the village’s only interest appears to be in hiring PSI and doing away with the firefighters’ union.
“It’s evident to us that they just want us gone,” Urbinati said. “This does not have anything to do with money anymore.”