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Mayor: Decision soon on privatizing firefighters

Both sides meet with federal mediator, Sept. 3

September 2nd, 2014 11:56 AM

North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. could decide as early as this week whether to move ahead with a plan to privatize the village firefighting services. 

While there's no timeline for action, Hermanek indicated he would quickly move to privatize the department if no progress is made during a negotiating session with union members scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 3.

This time the two sides won't be facing each other across the negotiating table. Instead, they'll be in separate rooms and the session will be in the hands of a federal labor mediator. 

Mediators are required by law to become involved in negotiations when there is an impasse.

"We're very, very far apart," said Hermanek. "We'll see if we can make some headway. If not, something will happen."

That "something" will be turning over the village's fire services to Paramedic Services of Illinois (PSI), which for nearly three decades has provided paramedic services for North Riverside.

The village's privatization offer to firefighters included extending all 16 union members job offers with PSI at their present salaries. However, the firefighters' benefits would change. Most important for firefighters, they would no longer accumulate pension benefits. Instead, they would qualify for pension benefits they've already earned, but moving forward would be part of a 401(k) plan. Firefighters would no longer be employees of the village, but of PSI.

Firefighters, however, have so far rejected the village's offer and claim that any move to privatize the department would be illegal. They have threatened to fight any such action in the courts.

Hermanek believes that privatizing the department is legal. He also wants to move quickly, he said, because the Illinois General Assembly may move this fall to outlaw privatization bids like the one being proposed in North Riverside unless the question is put to voters.

Hermanek said he's heard that state senate Democrats are ready to introduce a bill regarding fire department privatization when the General Assembly reconvenes in November.

"That's why I don't want this dragging on," Hermanek said.

The sides remain far apart, he said, despite what he called a "significant compromise" on the part of the village in negotiations. He declined to specify what that compromise involved.

Firefighters would like to see PSI eliminated from the equation by training union firefighters to be paramedics. The village contends that solution will increase the village's pension obligation.

Rick Urbinati, the president of North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714, said he had not yet seen an updated offer from the village but expected to see something Sept. 3.

"From what I understand, they have a compromise proposal for us," said Urbinati. "We haven't seen it, so I have no idea what kind of compromise they're planning at this point. Right now we're at where we've always been."

The village contends that its $1.8 million annual pension obligation — fire pensions amount to about $800,000 of that total — is too much to bear. One of the reasons the pension burden is so high right now is that, during the past decade, North Riverside has failed to adequately meet its fire and police pension obligations. In several of those years, the village failed to make any contribution toward pensions for police and firefighters.

Firefighters have also complained that they are being made a scapegoat for problems village officials have created over more than two decades, consciously deciding to spend money on programs such as lifetime health insurance for village hall retirees, failing to increase property taxes for more than two decades, and the now-discontinued practice of subsidizing water and waste hauling services for residents.

Union members also believe they are being targeted because North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714 backed a political slate opposed to Hermanek and the majority VIP Party in the spring of 2013.

This story has been changed to correct the annual fire pension obligation for the village of North Riverside for the 2014-15 fiscal year.