By Bob Uphues
North Riverside's village board on Thursday passed its 2014-15 appropriations ordinance, which slashed salaries for firefighters by almost $700,000 despite the fact that there's no deal on the table yet either to preserve the department as is or privatize it.
But that won't be the case for long, said Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. following the vote on the village's spending plan.
With the village already one quarter of the way through the fiscal year, a decision will be made soon.
"The negotiations are not going to go on forever," said Hermanek. "This will be done by the end of the summer."
More specifically, Hermanek said the village board will take action on the matter by Labor Day. There is another negotiating session between the village and North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714 on Aug. 4.
Hermanek said that the two sides are still far apart and that the firefighters' proposal, which calls for contract paramedics to be eliminated in favor of union firefighter/paramedics, can't achieve the savings the village needs.
"The figures being presented by the union are not accurate," said Hermanek. There's still a substantial gap between the $750,000 we've asked them to cut and what they're proposing."
During a special meeting of the village board that lasted just three minutes, trustees voted 4 to 1 to pass the spending ordinance without discussion. Trustee H. Bob Demopoulos voted against the plan, because the village has not yet decided how it's going to make the cuts it has planned.
"This ordinance doesn't solidify the proposal," said Demopoulos. "It leaves the privatization on the table."
Trustees Jason Bianco, Deborah Czajka, Joseph Mengoni and Vera Wilt voted for the ordinance. Trustee Matthew Decosola was absent.
Firefighters maintain that any attempt to privatize the department runs counter to Illinois law and have vowed to take the matter to court if the village follows through with its proposal to have Paramedic Services of Illinois supply North Riverside with fire protection services. The company already provides North Riverside with paramedic services.
The village offered the department's 12 firefighters and four lieutenants the option of switching their employment to PSI. Their salaries would stay the same, according to the village, but their benefits would change. The firefighters' state pension benefit would end and be replaced with a 401(k).
"Any step they take to privatize the fire department is illegal and we'd win in court," said Rick Urbinati, president of the North Riverside Firefighters Union. "We do not plan on missing one day of work."
Urbinati confirmed that all of the firefighters have rejected being employed by PSI and won't switch to the company if the village moves forward.
"We have an oath we took to serve the residents of North Riverside," said Urbinati. "We work for the village of North Riverside, not a private company. We don't believe fire protection should be done by a private company."
Hermanek said that the village will continue to bargain in good faith with firefighters and hasn't ruled out keeping the union department.
"If they can match, they're in," Hermanek said.
And if the firefighters are right and the courts rule in their favor, it could still turn out to be a net loss for firefighters, because the village would likely make cuts to fire protection to meet the spending plan trustees just passed into law.
"Frankly, if they don't give us a better proposal and the courts say we can't do this, then they're going to get laid off, so are they happy?" Hermanek said. "And no court in the world can stop a decision of laying off people."
Even with the proposed salary cuts, North Riverside is planning to spend $233,000 more this year on fire protection than it did in 2013-14, according to the appropriations ordinance. The village plans on contributing $500,000 more to fire pensions than it did last year. It also has budgeted for a major roof/HVAC repair for the fire station and $170,000 for the repair of the department's ladder truck.
The ordinance also predicts the village will spend $87,000 more in legal services related to the fire department than it did in 2013-14.