North Riverside is in a financial pickle. That much is certain.
It took more than two decades to get to this place, and it’s our guess that there’s no silver bullet. While the village is hoping that privatizing the fire department can be accomplished by sometime in November, it’s more likely that this tussle between North Riverside and its union fire department is going to continue a lot longer than that.
The village’s attorney says he’ll ask a Cook County judge to expedite the village’s newly filed lawsuit asking her to void the village’s contract with its fire department. While the contract ended April 30, language prevents either side from unilaterally terminating the deal and walking away from the negotiating table. To ask a judge to summarily upend decades of established labor law seems a bit ambitious.
The village states it’s at an impasse with the firefighters’ union after a little more than two months of negotiations. The recently expired fire contract was arrived at after more than two years of negotiations. When the village and its police union agreed to a new deal in 2012, it had taken two and a half years of negotiation.
In North Riverside terms, negotiations on a new fire contract have just begun if recent history is any guide.
Firefighters on Sept. 18 will invoke their right to interest arbitration with the Illinois Labor Relations Board. We simply find it hard to believe that both the circuit court and the labor board are going to resolve this dispute with anything approaching haste.
This is going to drag on for months. Meanwhile, North Riverside’s financial picture keeps getting worse.
The Illinois Department of Insurance has still not made a final ruling on whether to force the village to use sales tax revenue to pay pension obligations. That certainly could happen, and the village would be forced to use the precious cash reserves it has to cover the shortfall in order to keep operations running at current levels.
If the situation doesn’t change, those reserves will vanish within a couple of years. The village’s ability to issue working cash bonds to help weather the storm also has been hamstrung by its poor credit rating.
Even if the fire privatization miraculously is blessed by the courts and labor board, it won’t solve North Riverside’s problems. The village still is saddled with an even bigger police pension burden. Its finances would still be balancing on a razor’s edge.
Despite it all, the village board stubbornly clings to freezing property taxes and an outrageous perk that provides cheap lifetime health insurance for retired employees and their spouses.
Eliminating or phasing out that perk would save the village tens of millions of dollars over time. And yet, no one will even mention it as the critical cost-saving measure they are looking for.
In a month, the village will be halfway through its fiscal year with no solutions to its ongoing financial problems. Maybe in time the village will be able to privatize its fire department, but our guess is that plan is a long way off.
In the meantime, there is real, immediate action the board can take to help the village. Why won’t they do it?