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."