Leaders alarmed about fire staffing bill

Multiple area fire departments and ambulances were called out to help Naperville responders at a house fire early Wednesday morning at 1212 Field Court..  | Susan Carlman/Sun-Times Media
Multiple area fire departments and ambulances were called out to help Naperville responders at a house fire early Wednesday morning at 1212 Field Court.. | Susan Carlman/Sun-Times Media

Municipal leaders are sounding the alarm over legislation they say could take decisions regarding fire department staffing levels out of their hands.

Proponents of the measure, which was approved earlier this month by state representatives, say it’s a safety issue, while municipal officials around the Chicago area argue it could further stress already tight budgets.

The Senate later this spring is expected to consider the legislation, which would clarify or modify the state’s Public Labor Relations Act that gave police officers and firefighters the right to bargain collectively. The change would allow fire department staffing or minimum manning levels to be negotiated — along with wages, benefits and work rules — and potentially subject to arbitration.

If ultimately signed into law, the measure — HB 5485 — wouldn’t apply to Chicago.

Some towns already have staffing requirements built into their contracts with firefighters, while others don’t.

What’s alarming municipal officials is that decisions about personnel numbers could, if not worked out at the bargaining table, be made in arbitration on a case-by-case basis.

He said that could come out to an estimated $4.6 million in the first year, and $65 million in 10 years.

Groups such as the Northwest Municipal Conference and the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association warn that if communities are required to maintain certain fire staffing levels, it could force layoffs in other areas.

“Manning has never been an issue that could go to arbitration,” Ed Paesel, executive director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, said, adding that the group’s members are “very concerned” about the legislation.

An official with the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois said concerns of municipal officials are overblown.

Pat Devaney, president of the labor group, said the legislation doesn’t mandate that communities establish minimum personnel levels and would codify court rulings that have upheld the use of arbitration in maintaining staffing numbers.

“This (bill) is not going to change the outcomes of arbitration that are happening today,” Devaney said.

Higher costs, loss of control

Communities could face huge increases in personnel costs, forcing them to resort to higher property taxes or cuts in other areas, Steve Quigley, executive director of the Will County Governmental League, said.

“We are looking at this as nothing more than a back door property tax increase,” he said.

Quigley said that, in Will County, a firefighter costs the average municipality about $130,000 a year with salary, benefits and pension. To raise the staffing level at one fire station by one firefighter would cost the municipality more than three times that in order to cover shifts around the clock, he said.

Mary Randle, Metro West Council of Government director, said some members of the organization are concerned about the legislation. The Aurora-based organization represents a number of municipalities in Kane, Kendall and DeKalb counties.

“They don’t like the idea of taking away local control,” she said. “Local is a big issue to them. It ends up being another unfunded mandate. Municipalities’ backs are already against the wall with pension costs.”

Dwight Pancottine, labor and employment attorney for the city of Naperville, said firefighter unions have tried to bring this measure to the Illinois Labor Relations Board before and failed.

“So, they brought this bill,” he said. “If it’s mandatory, it gives the union the right to take it to arbitration. So, the municipality loses control over the issue.”

He said this likely would not be applied to overall staffing directly. But it would be to minimum staffing levels required for each shift. But that would affect overall staffing, because a city would be forced to hire enough to cover each shift, as negotiated or required by an arbitrator.

Patty Schuh, a spokeswoman for Illinois Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, said it could be the middle of next month before senators get a good look at the bill. She said Radogno is “gathering input” on the issue and has been hearing from municipal officials who oppose it and firefighters who support it.