Jim Dey: Racing against the legislative clock
As he struggles with budget woes in the city's fire department, Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer fears he's racing against the clock — the legislative clock in Springfield where members of the House and Senate are considering bills Eisenhauer fears would tie his hands.
"It would be prudent at this time to thoroughly analyze the feasibility of reducing personnel and optimizing the location of facilities," Eisenhauer wrote in a budget message to city council members. "Expediting the need for this study are two (bills) which would drastically reduce local control over future budgeting decisions."
Actually, there are three bills pending in Springfield that have raised concerns among municipal officials — HB 4418 and 5485 in the House and SB 1681 in the Senate.
Two of the bills relate to requiring public referendums to create and dissolve fire departments.
Of the three, the highest-profile legislation and the one moving fastest on the legislative track is HB 5485, which was approved by 13-5-1 on March 5 by the House Labor and Commerce Committee.
What does this legislation do? It depends whom you ask.
The Illinois Association of Firefighters says it does nothing more than codify existing law by explicitly stating that firefighter manning levels are subject to labor negotiations, an issue that would be resolved by binding arbitration if management and union cannot reach agreement.
"This is just clarifying (existing law)," firefighters association President Pat Devaney, a lieutenant with the Champaign Fire Department.
"It would be a disaster for municipalities because it would change the law and take away control from (local officials) to decide how we want to staff our fire departments," said Champaign City Council member Tom Bruno.
"That is 100 percent inaccurate. It's a good way to distort the truth, but it is 100 percent inaccurate," said Devaney.
"The real question is, why does the Legislature want to get between local communities and their firefighters?" said Champaign City Attorney Fred Stavins. "There is no good reason for it."
A 1986 state law setting out the bargaining rules for municipalities and firefighter unions strips firefighters of the right to strike but requires negotiations over pay, hours and conditions of employment.
Firefighters say conditions of employment necessarily include minimum-staffing requirements because staffing is a key feature of worker safety. Municipalities dispute that, stating hiring is strictly a management prerogative unless it chooses to negotiate it away.
Danville and Urbana both have agreed to minimum-staffing requirements with their firefighter unions. Danville Public Safety Director Larry Thomason said his city has 52 firefighters and must have a minimum of 13 available per shift. Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said her city's firefighter contract requires 15 firefighters per shift and a minimum of three to a truck.
Champaign has no minimum-staffing agreement and doesn't want one because it chooses, and has the legal authority, not to embrace the concept. Under current law, City Attorney Stavins said Champaign does not have to do so, but that might change if state law is changed to include minimum staffing as a bargaining issue subject to arbitration.
The village of Oak Lawn agreed to a minimum-staffing agreement of 22 firefighters per shift in 1992. Later, when budget shortfalls prompted the fire chief to ignore those minimums because the city couldn't afford the overtime expense, the union challenged the city's decision and won.
A state appeals court ruled in June 2011 that, after having agreed to minimum staffing, Oak Lawn could not renege on its contract obligation and must pay the necessary overtime to maintain 22 firefighters per shift.
Included in the appellate court decision was an explanation of how Oak Lawn came to accept minimum staffing. It demonstrates how even fire officials who represent management can use minimum-staffing requirements to insulate their departments from cost issues that affect every other city department as well as taxpayers.
Oak Lawn Fire Chief John McCastland, who ran the department from 1989 to 1993, testified that it was his opinion that minimum staffing of 22 firefighters was "necessary to safely run the department."
"Because a new board of trustees has been elected within the village, McCastland felt it was important to include minimum-manning language ... in order to protect the fire department from various political and economic issues that had developed due to the change in composition of the village's board of trustees," the appeals court decision states.
McCastland's testimony lends credence to the worst fears of municipal officials, who contend that not only does minimum staffing nullify the authority of local elected and appointed officials to make spending decisions but guarantees that budget cuts made will have a disproportionate impact on other city services, such as police and public works.
Among those opposing the minimum-staffing legislation are mayors Eisenhauer and Prussing and the Illinois Municipal League. The league is attempting to organize a counterattack of local officials who are willing to urge their legislators to vote no when the bill reaches the House floor.
But the firefighters are a powerful lobby in Illinois, and they flexed their political muscle at the March 5 legislative hearing.
Only five groups registered with the committee in support of the bill while more than 70 expressed opposition. Nonetheless, the committee voted overwhelmingly in support of the bill. In a peculiar procedure, some committee members recused themselves from the process and were replaced by substitute committee members who voted in favor.
A firefighter union fact sheet distributed to legislators and the news media defends the minimum staffing as an effective way to end costly litigation over the matter and a potential cost savings to local communities because firefighters are willing to make concessions in exchange for minimum staffing.
They further argue that "there is not a single example of an arbitrator issuing an award for the union to increase staffing levels," the union fact sheet states.
Oh, but just wait until a minimum-staffing bill passes, say the critics. Then, arbitrators will have a free hand to decide minimum-staffing levels based on statewide conditions, not on the ability of local communities to afford the higher costs being imposed on them, and local taxpayers will have no alternative but to pick up the tab.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 351-5369.
Fast facts: Proposed changes to state laws governing municipal fire departments
What bill proposes: Prohibits a city or village that owns, operates or maintains any fire protection or advanced life support services facility from ceasing the operation and maintenance of these facilities unless approved by voters in a referendum.
Bill's status: Introduced on Jan. 29, bill was assigned to the Public Safety: Police & Fire Committee on Feb. 18.
What bill proposes: Provides that in the case of firefighter, and fire department or fire district paramedic matters, the arbitration decision shall be limited to wages, hours and conditions of employment, which may include manning and residency requirements.
Bill's status: Introduced on Feb. 13, the bill was assigned to the Labor & Commerce Committee on Feb. 24. On March 5, the committee approved the bill 13-5. But on March 11, the bill was amended on the House floor. The bill is back in the Labor & Commerce Committee.
What bill proposes: Creates the Unified Fire Protection District Act, which legislates that such districts may be formed either by referendum or intergovernmental agreement, and sets forth requirements for each method of formation.
Bill's status: Introduced on February 2013, bill was assigned to the Local Government Committee. The bill was first rewritten in March 2013 and approved 12-0. In April 2013, the bill was rewritten a second time and approved in committee. In July 2013, the bill amended a third time. On Feb. 26, 2014, the bill was sent to the full Senate by the Local Government Committee 10-3.