N. Riverside privatization plan draws fire

Union chief says he's confident deal can be struck

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By Bob Uphues


North Riverside's village board on Monday night was confronted with a sea of orange and a strong display of solidarity toward firefighters, who are battling against a plan to privatize the department and shift the village fire service to the company that now provides its paramedics.

For the second straight week, about 150 people packed the Village Commons council chamber to overflowing. The vast majority, many of them North Riverside firefighters and union emergency responders from other municipalities, wore orange T-shirts bearing the crest of North Riverside Firefighters Local 2714.

"Your radical idea to balance your budget [after] years of misappropriation and mismanagement of town funds, does not give you the right to bargain with our safety," said Chris Kribales, a North Riverside firefighter and resident of the village for more than a decade. "This town deserves professional, sworn people to protect them."

Monday's meeting was the legally required public hearing for the village's 2014-15 appropriations ordinance, which must be passed by the end of July. The village board is scheduled to meet at a special session on Thursday, July 24, to pass the ordinance, which guides spending for the current fiscal year, which began May 1.

The appropriations ordinance drafted by village officials calls for a savings in fire department spending of more than $700,000. Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. has proposed deriving that savings by contracting out fire protection services to Paramedic Services of Illinois (PSI), which has provided paramedics to North Riverside for 28 years.

Firefighters have been offered a chance to sign on with PSI at their current salaries, but they would lose benefits such as their pensions and health care in favor of benefits provided by PSI.

Hermanek has identified the steep cost of firefighter pensions as the reason the village needs to change the way the fire department operates. The village has failed over the past decade to fund its fire and police pensions adequately, and now faces sanctions from the state of Illinois unless it does so.

Firefighters and their supporters say the village is scapegoating firefighters for financial problems it built for itself over more than two decades, including a failure to raise the village's property tax levy, village subsidies for water and waste hauling services, and generous salaries and benefits for village employees and elected officials.

North Riverside firefighters have been working without a contract since April 30. The village and the union have had two negotiating sessions so far. A third is scheduled for July 21, just prior to the vote on the fiscal-year appropriation.

Firefighter Rick Urbinati, who also made a public statement at Monday's hearing, said he believed the two sides could negotiate an agreement that would save the union structure and find the savings the village is looking for.

"I'm confident we're going to come up with a solution other than privatization," said Urbinati, who is president of North Riverside Firefighters Local 2714. "We are not going anywhere. We will stand by and do everything we have to, to serve you. 

"This union's been here since 1979 and it'll stay here."

The attorney for the firefighters union has said previously that the union would sue the village if it attempted to privatize the department.

Several supporters of the union who spoke Monday said they would be happy to pay more in taxes to ensure that the village's fire department remained as is. Others cautioned that privatizing fire protection was risky and would be susceptible to constant turnover.

"Whenever you consider privatization, lots of things look good on paper," said longtime resident Ted Watylyk. "What happens down the road is things change. When you privatize, you lose control."

Of the 18 speakers, Monday, 13 were strong supporters of the firefighters' position. Only a handful warned that the village's pension burden would drive North Riverside's finances into the ground.

"Pension costs for village employees are eating us alive," said Al Meyer, who supports the village's proposed solution to the pension issue. "Our village leaders have stepped up with an innovative plan to address this problem. Continue negotiations with the fire union to cut expenses. And if that fails, privatize the fire department."

Email: buphues@wjinc.com Twitter: @RBLandmark

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Reader Comments

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Dante Cissilito  

Posted: July 16th, 2014 9:03 AM

Wasn't Mr. Hermanek a North Riverside trustee under a former mayor, and didn't Mr. Hermanek vote in favor of one or more village budgets that didn't properly fund the pension accounts? If this is true, Mr. Hermanek bears some responsibility for putting the village in the financial situation that it's in. If this is true, I'm interested in knowing why Mr. Hermanek voted in favor of these budgets. If this is true, what, if anything, does this say about Mr. Hermanek's foresight and decision-making ability? I hope village voters, come next election time, keep in mind the trail of financial lapses and missteps that elected members of the VIP have left us. While they drive their "corporate" cars, and, for some of those that are employed by the village, bathe in the luxury of their incredibly high salaries, we get higher water bills, potentially higher property taxes, and lame excuses.

Dan Miller from North Riverside  

Posted: July 16th, 2014 12:46 AM

I forgot to mention 3 important facts regarding this Privatization when I spoke against it the other night. 1st: the majority of people I know or have known that work for PSI complain about their pay and on their off time take firefighter exams to get away from PSI. As mentioned by me before at the meeting this will create a revolving door of fireman coming to help us in need. North Riverside will just become a stepping stone for firefighters. 2nd and the most important: what happens when these PSI fireman decide they arent getting paid enough? Since it is a Private Company and would no longer be a Collective Bargining Unit...they could Strike!!! And unlike on the Police side (who cannot strike either may I add) there is no County or State level fire agency to assist the citizens of NR if needed. 3rd: what is next a private police department? That was mentioned last night and the finance directors whose pants were on fire, stated the are no options currently availble for that. This tells me two things: 1st the mayor/board has looked into it or how else would they know what options there are. Second by stating there are no options is a lie, they can get county to come into North Riverside. Is that next? Do we want to wait for a county officer to come from stone park/desplaines area to anwser our 9-11 calls. If the mayor thinks he will get assistance from other surronding towns because his private fire department is on strike, he has another thing coming. Maybe he should call Mayor Getty from Lyons! Getty has also been warned that surronding towns are not going to assist on routine calls. Privatization is not the answer if the mayor and the trustees care about the residents of North Riversides Safety. It has been said that something has to change and that the pension system as we know it is the problem. Well something does have to change and has begun to change, politicians like the mayor can no longer play chicago politics because we are now watching!

Mike Bloom from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: July 15th, 2014 9:47 PM

The village released their CAFRS reports that went back to 2005 and their PTELL levy from all the way to 2000. During this time the village has failed to maintain a property tax to support the services given. I'm sure the residents were happy with low taxes but would have rather paid what they were paying if they had known the village was not able to make their obligations while lowering taxes. The firemen didn't cause this. The elected officials caused this issue and need to admit fault to their residents and work by bargaining in good faith with the union to make sure the firemen and the citizens are going to get the est service possable. Contracting with a for profit company is not doing good business because the village is essentially giving up control of the fire department.

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