Cities: Legislation needed to reform police, fire relations
The Illinois Municipal League's "Save Our Cities" agenda also calls for legislative reforms in insurance benefits for police and firefighters, firefighter staffing levels and arbitrator salary and benefit awards for police and firefighters. League officials are working to get legislation introduced in each area.
Staffing and arbitration
The municipal league does not want cities to be required to collectively bargain over manning and staffing levels for fire departments and wants a requirement that arbitrators consider a city's ability to fund salary and benefit increases.
Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said cities have lost more and more management rights in determining what type of workforce is necessary.
"City administrators and elected officials need the ability to determine what resources are necessary and affordable without being forced to bargain over those numbers," he said. "It comes down to arbitrators deciding what the workforce should be, regardless of expense to the municipality."
Pat Devaney with the Associated Firefighters of Illinois said firefighting requires multiple tasks be performed at once in a safe manner, and the people performing those jobs should be able to discuss how many people are necessary to perform those functions. He said employers want to take that right away, so a bureaucrat with limited knowledge of firefighting can arbitrarily change the manning and staffing levels.
But Eisenhauer and league officials argue that decisions end up in the hands of arbitrators who have no personal interest or investment in a community. By law, firefighters and police officers cannot strike, so an impasse goes to an arbitrator, who renders a decision. Eisenhauer said municipalities make very reasonable salary and benefit proposals to avoid arbitration, which could have a more costly result.
One year ago, some Champaign council members voiced reservations in accepting a two-year police contract that gave an average of 1.75 percent salary bumps both years at a time when the city was making major cuts. But accepting the contract avoided arbitration, and then-Mayor Jerry Schweighart told the council that other cities' arbitration proceedings resulted in higher pay increases.
Municipal league officials cite Rockford as an example in which the arbitrator awarded the firefighter union a 6 percent wage increase even though the city ran a deficit budget from 2008-2010 and was projecting a deficit for 2011.
In Danville, the last three contracts with police have advanced to arbitration at times when the city has been making budget cuts, including personnel. Arbitrators have awarded increases, except in 2007, when a wage freeze was granted. However, Danville Fire Department staffing levels have never advanced to arbitration, and several years ago, the local firefighter union negotiated with the city a reduction in the number of firefighters to save money. Devaney said rather than extreme situations like Rockford, he has seen more instances in which union members are making concessions.
The municpal league also supports limiting lifetime health insurance coverage to police and firefighters who are killed or "catastrophically" injured in the line of duty.
League officials contend that the term "catastrophic" has become so broad that it skews what legislators originally intended. In 2003, the Illinois Supreme Court determined the benefit, known as the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act, should go to all first responders injured in the line of duty. According to the league, injuries such as a bad knee, general back pain or shoulder impingement now qualify a person for the benefit.
Danville has seven former police officers or firefighters receiving lifetime health insurance for themselves and dependents. According to league data, that has cost the city $454,896 over seven years from 2003-2010.
Prior to the law, Sean Smoot with the Illinois Police Benevolent and Protective Association said, cities could drop injured workers and their families from city health insurance, and the number that qualify for this benefit is still small, and the cost is small compared with cities' overall spending.
Smoot and Devaney said the proposed reforms would strip the benefit from any firefighter or police officer who suffered a career-ending injury. Devaney said prior to the 2003 court decision, very few severely injured firefighters were awarded the benefit, which is what required the union to go to court to secure a definition.
Eisenhauer said he agrees that cities should provide lifetime benefits for those suffering truly catastrophic injuries.
"But what does become frustrating is when that definition widens to include injuries or illnesses that do not prohibit an individual from gainful and meaningful employment. There are countless examples of that across the state," he said, adding that there are also cases of former police and fire employees receiving the benefits, who have gone on to other jobs with better salaries and benefit packages but turn down the new employers' health insurance.
Smoot said his union has asked the municipal league to show examples of abuse of this benefit.
"Anything can be abused. But we have received no evidence from them that it's being abused," he said.