Fire engine 'brownout,' reduced police desk hours start Jan. 1
CHAMPAIGN — Without city council action, two public-safety cuts that received much community and political attention throughout 2011 will become a reality in 2012.
A fire company on the city's west side — one of nine in Champaign — will severely reduce its activity as of Jan. 1. And the police department lobby — currently open 24 hours — will cut its hours in half.
Both budget cuts have come under rigorous debate in both political arenas and union negotiations since they were first approved by the city council toward the beginning of 2011. And, after being delayed for six months, both would require some kind of city council action to get another reprieve.
But with the council having met for the last time until Jan. 3, 2012, the fire and police services will be reduced.
"It's always troubling," Mayor Don Gerard said. "It's hard for me. I put a high premium on first responders. I have a high respect for them and their views on what they need to do the job."
The "brownout" of Engine Co. 154, one of two fire trucks stationed at 2315 W. John St., has received the most attention lately as fire union leaders have lobbied city administrators to keep the engine in full service.
Technically, it is a staffing change that will reduce the number of on-duty firefighters available at any given time and save the city $417,000 in overtime costs per year.
But that will also mean roughly 75 percent of the time, there won't be enough firefighters to staff Engine No. 154.
"While there's a safety issue for my members, it's more the citizens' safety," said Chris Zaremba, a Champaign firefighter and president of the local chapter of the fire union.
That engine is supposed to be the second to respond to fires on the city's west side. While it's not in service, the department will have to pull an engine from another department, which will cost them some time responding to emergencies.
And under a department policy, "our first-in company can't make entry into a house unless they have a very strong reason to believe there's someone in that house," Zaremba said.
But Fire Chief Doug Forsman said the service reduction will have a minimal effect. That fire company only received 1.3 calls per day, making it the least busy in the city.
"There are some service impacts," Forsman said. "We have made every effort to make that as little as possible."
The "brownout" was originally scheduled to go into effect on July 1, the beginning of the city's fiscal year. In trying to block the cut, the union brought city administrators to an arbitrator, who ultimately ruled that the decision was up to the city council.
The fire union continued to negotiate; Zaremba said firefighters offered to essentially return $325,000 of their overtime pay instead of taking the $417,000 annual cut. That's about $3,250 per person in a union of 100 members, he said.
"For our members to make that kind of sacrifice, we wanted to know that we wouldn't have brownouts," Zaremba said.
This month, the city rejected that offer. "There's continuing dialogue," Forsman said, but he could offer no further details of the negotiations.
Conversations regarding the police front desk are not over, either, Gerard said.
"I think they're far from over," he said.
Right now, the staff at the police front desk keep the doors to the lobby unlocked 24 hours per day. On Jan. 1, they will start locking the doors to the public between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.
The front desk staff do more than attend to the public during night hours. Among other duties, they monitor police scanner communications, constantly checking suspects' records and whether they may be a danger to police officers who are approaching them.
Those duties will continue with a reduced staff, but the lobby which provides a safe haven at night for some community members will be closed.
Gerard said he is "worried" about the front desk — keeping it open was one of his major campaign points before he won election in the spring, and he said officials are still looking for a means to get it back open. Somehow partnering with the University of Illinois police might be one example, he said.
And a new head of the police department might want to make the change on his own.
"We're bringing in new leadership, and a new chief may have a higher priority in that aspect of his budget," Gerard said.
Like the fire engine "brownout," locking the police department doors at night is technically a staffing change, too. Reduced staff at the front desk means they will not have time to attend to the public.
Not long after Gerard was sworn in as mayor, the council actually approved an ordinance authorizing enough staff to keep the doors open. But they never found money to pay for it.
City officials held off on locking the doors while council members looked for new revenue to pay for the jobs. A few months ago, they considered a 4 percent tax on package liquor. They gave the idea preliminary approval in haste, but reversed themselves when local business owners raised their voices.
In the meantime, the front desk staffers who faced the layoff threat have voluntarily found new employment and left their jobs, said Finance Director Richard Schnuer. With no money and not enough staff, it is becoming very difficult to keep the doors open.
But Gerard is convinced it's not a done deal.
"I think the police department on many levels is still up in the air," he said.