Three candidates running for North Riverside trustee from the VIP Party last week appeared to break from the village’s position that the fire department ought to be privatized, saying they favor allowing future firefighters to be union members and employees of the village as long as they accept a 401k-style retirement plan.
That was one of many issues VIP candidates and their opponents from the Save Our Firefighters Party wrangled over during a joint interview lasting more than an hour at the Landmark offices in Oak Park last week.
The interview was part of the newspaper’s endorsement process in the run-up to the April 7 election of three trustees to the North Riverside village board.
The VIP candidates include incumbents Deborah Czajka and Jason Bianco, who were appointed to the village board in 2013. They are joined by Joseph Iniguez, who is an appointed official on the North Riverside Civil Service Commission.
They are opposed by a slate of candidates, headed by incumbent Trustee H. Bob Demopoulos, who was elected to the board in 2011 as an independent. His slate mates are Marybelle Mandel, who ran unsuccessfully for trustee on a slate supported by Demopoulos in 2013, and Joshua Garza, a sergeant in the U.S. Army National Guard.
The VIP candidates’ announcement that they all supported a different solution for solving the fire pension issue was the biggest surprise of the interview. While the candidates didn’t offer specifics on how such an arrangement would work, their solution appeared to be a hybrid.
Bianco said the VIP candidates favored moving ahead with an 11-year contract that would allow union firefighters to retire out of the present union arrangement by attrition. They would be replaced by new firefighters who would be employed by the village and not a private firm, Bianco said.
Questioned about this abrupt change of direction, Bianco said the status of the new firefighters would be “worked out in the legal details.”
“In our plan I would assume [the new firefighters] would be employees of the village,” Bianco added, “if they went to a 401k.”
Asked specifically if he was recommending privatization, Bianco responded, “No, unless the 11-year contract does not go through.”
Iniguez, who is drawing a union pension as a retired Illinois State Police officer, stated that while the mayor’s privatization plan was “innovative,” he did not favor privatizing the fire department.
“I would like to see the firefighters stay, to not go private,” said Iniguez. “I’m a union guy and I still collect a union pension. I like the option of the 11-year contract Jason was talking about.”
The 11-year contract supported by VIP candidates, said Bianco, “satisfies our need to take care of the people who have put in the commitment. The next hire will also stay union but becomes 401k. That is the solution to our long-term plan. That way it cuts down our pension obligations for the future of our village.”
Demopoulos, who has made the village’s plan to privatize the fire department the centerpiece of his opposition, called the VIP plan a “slap in the face” to firefighters and said the mayor’s plan to privatize the department was “bypassing decades of labor law.”
“Although I do credit the village with coming up with a solution, I warned the village about the legal ramifications of this. It’s good in theory to say we give them an 11-year contract, to go work for a private company, but you also have to look at will that company guarantee an 11-year contract” which could be jeopardized by “one bad quarter.”
Instead, Demopoulos said he would press for the elimination of a perk that provides a lifetime health insurance plan for all village employees who were hired prior to the elimination of that perk a couple of years ago.
“There have been no attempts to curb it, tweak it or phase it out,” said Demopoulos, who favors phasing it out. “It’s a big chunk of our fiscal year budget. You could easily phase it out.”
The village’s actuaries have reported that the plan will cost the village more than $27 million over the next several decades as employees who still qualify for the perk take advantage of it.
VIP’s candidates were reluctant to support getting rid of the perk for employees who still qualify for it. Czajka suggested forming a committee to explore a cheaper health care plan, while Bianco said it would be unfair to strip non-union employees of the perk if it couldn’t be stripped from union employees.
The village’s own attorney has said the plan could be eliminated if there was a will to do it.
“The [state] constitution doesn’t guarantee you post-retirement health benefits,” said attorney Burt Odelson last July.
In the end, Bianco also admitted that the post-retirement health perk might be a subject of discussion down the road.
“It will be discussed,” he said.
In addition to getting rid of the health insurance perk, Demopoulos said he would set aside an as-yet-undetermined percentage of sales tax revenues to pay down the large deficit in the village’s pension obligations.
Demopoulos and Mandel said the village could save money by bidding out contracts, pointing to the village’s change in waste haulers in 2013. He suggested bidding out services for the village attorney, village engineer and tree trimming as examples. The village also has not sought bids for its paramedic services in almost 30 years.
Iniguez said he favored looking at ways to consolidate services, such as emergency dispatching, with other communities.
“We have to look at everything,” Iniguez said.
With respect to property taxes, candidates grudgingly admitted that last year’s extension of North Riverside’s property tax levy for the first time in more than two decades was necessary to capture new revenue.
But the reasons for favoring the increase were different. Bianco said that while “in a perfect world we would never raise taxes … that can’t happen anymore.
“That era is gone,” he said. “We have to collect taxes. To miss out on that [additional revenue from the increased tax levy] would have been a disservice to our village.”
Garza, meanwhile, said he favored raising the tax levy to attract a certain type of person to the village.
“There’s good and bad to it,” said Garza. “You’re attracting a less-desirable community base if you keep [taxes] at a very, very low rate. Look at neighborhoods like Riverside and River Forest, with very high tax. They’re appealing, safe.
“It’s going to have to happen; we’re just going to try to make sure it’s as reasonable as possible.”
Demopoulos said it was important to extend the tax levy in 2014 in order to capture new tax revenue made available by the construction of Costco and other new businesses.
“It was a great opportunity,” Demopoulos said. “When there’s new construction, there should be that resource.”
Save Our Firefighters’ candidates all opposed the installation of new red-light cameras in the village, while VIP’s either supported them or didn’t feel very strongly about the subject.
Garza called the cameras a deterrent to businesses by slapping visitors with red-light fines.
“If you have something that’s going to deter a shopper, and that’s where your money is coming from, I’m taking that out,” Garza said.
The village’s present policy is to use money from red-light camera fines to pay its police pension obligation.
Czajka, who sympathized with those getting whacked with a red-light fine, said she initially was against the cameras but had a change of heart after seeing video of incidents caught by those cameras.
“It changed my mind right there,” she said.
In terms of finding some savings in the budget, Czajka also said the village board should consider limiting raises for staff and asking each department to trim additional fat from their annual funding requests.
“We need to go to each department and say, ‘Give me bare bones,” because we need the money,” Czajka said.
Iniguez, who favored red-light cameras as a revenue source, said he would like to see a comprehensive look at how village departments operate and interact in order to find economies.
“We have to be smarter about how we actually do things,” Iniguez said. “We have to do more with less.”