It’s doubtful North Riverside will see much, if any, of the $700,000 savings projected by Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. last summer, when he announced he was going to try to privatize firefighting services.
The 2014-15 fiscal year ends April 30 and the village’s plan appears to have stalled in the courts.
On Jan. 23, a Cook County Circuit Court judge dealt another blow to Hermanek’s hope for getting a privatization deal done before the end of the fiscal year.
Instead of ruling on a motion to summarily terminate the village’s contract with North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714, Judge Diane Larsen ordered discovery related to the union’s contention that North Riverside had already hammered out a deal with Paramedic Services of Illinois to take over firefighting services before sitting down to negotiate with the union on a new contract.
Both sides are due back in court on Feb. 11 for a status hearing. In the meantime, the union intends on getting a sworn deposition from North Riverside Finance Director Sue Scarpiniti and, potentially, Hermanek himself.
It’s unclear when Larsen will rule on the village’s motion for summary judgment on the contract issue.
North Riverside Village Attorney Burt Odelson has argued consistently that the village and union are at an impasse and that the village no longer has an obligation to negotiate a new contract.
“It’s a very narrow issue of law,” Odelson told Larsen at the Jan. 23 court hearing.
The prior contract expired April 30, 2014, but the two sides didn’t sit down at the negotiating table until June 24.
That first meeting was two weeks after Hermanek announced publicly that he was working on a plan to privatize firefighting services. The union complained that a plan had already been worked out with PSI and that the village never intended to negotiate a new contract in good faith.
The attorney for the firefighters’ union, J. Dale Berry, countered in court on Jan. 23 that the village’s contention they followed the rules is up for debate.
“The problem is the complaint they’ve filed says they’ve followed procedures,” Berry said. “Our main issue is, we need to know the circumstances under which they made the deal with PSI.”
In September, the village attempted to force the issue by filing a lawsuit in circuit court, asking for a judge to rule that its contract with the union was null and void. The union countered by invoking its right to contract arbitration and by filing an unfair labor practice complaint with Illinois Labor Relations Board.
Those two matters have advanced parallel to the village’s lawsuit. On Jan. 22, the both sides sat down at their first arbitration hearing. At that session, Odelson did convince the arbitrator to delay any more hearings until the lawsuit was settled. The unfair labor practice complaint is scheduled to be taken up by the labor board in April.
Hermanek rolled out the possibility of privatization last summer in response to North Riverside’s police and fire pension obligations, which continue to grow and threaten to force government service cuts unless they are contained.
In the past decade, the village has consistently failed to fund its pension obligations, contributing nothing in several years. That prompted the Illinois Department of Insurance to demand that the village either pay their pension obligations or face sanctions, including using sales tax revenues for that purpose.
While such a move would threaten to devastate the village’s ability to provide basic services, it’s unclear if such a sanction would ever be implemented.
During a conversation in the courtroom between Odelson and Berry following the Jan. 23 court hearing, Berry told Odelson that the Department of Insurance’s enforcement action “is triggered by the [North Riverside] pension board. That’s your relief valve. There’s no emergency beyond your control.
“It is draconian, but it has to be triggered by the pension board, and we both have a say in that.”
That statement squares with the Illinois Pension Code. Under Article 4 (Firefighters Pension Fund for Municipalities, population 500,000 and under) the code states:
“If a participating municipality fails to transmit to the [local pension] fund contributions required of it under this Article for more than 90 days after the payment of those contributions is due, the [pension] fund may, after giving notice to the municipality, certify to the State Comptroller the amounts of the delinquent payments, and the Comptroller must, beginning in fiscal year 2016, deduct and deposit into the fund the certified amounts or a portion of those amounts from the following proportions of grants of State funds to the municipality.”
As a result, while the pension fund may demand those contributions, it does not have to.