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FD costs, staffing issues arise again

Updated: May 14, 2014 6:42AM



Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury is taking a strong stance against legislation in Springfield that would require minimum staffing on fire trucks, saying the bill is unnecessary and would take a key personnel decision away from local officials.

The bill would have an independent arbitrator set staffing levels to ensure that proper fire safety is being provided to a community. Oak Lawn’s contract with the firefighters union requires at least four firefighters on each truck.

Discussion of House Bill 5485 led to heated debate at the village board meeting Tuesday night, with some trustees siding with Bury and others not. Trustees did not vote on a resolution stating the village’s opposition to the bill, but they did agree to discuss it further at a future committee meeting.

Bury said a cumbersome arbitration process is not needed.

“We want to control how we use our resources. We rely on the police and fire chiefs to tell us,” she said.

During the board meeting, a video was played of Bury explaining why she opposes the bill. Also in the video is Fire Chief George Sheets, who said the key staffing issue is not how many are on a truck but “how many can assemble on a fire scene.”

The mayor warned that spending cuts will have to be made in the 2014-15 budget to enable the village to properly finance pensions for firefighters and other village employees.

“This is not anti-firefighters,” she said. “We appreciate their professionalism and all they contribute to public safety. We like to give them tools to do their jobs and keep the promise we made by funding their pensions.”

Village manager Larry Deetjen echoed Bury’s sentiment, saying the main issue is “fiscal responsibility.” He said “72 percent of our firefighters do not live or pay taxes in Oak Lawn” and that “56 cents of every tax dollar (in Oak Lawn) pays for public safety.”

Deetjen also brought up an oft-heard issue at board meetings — the village spending about $2 million a year in overtime for firefighters.

Asked if she wanted a residency requirement for firefighters, Bury said she opposes that but has concern why some firefighters do not reside in Oak Lawn.

Bury said that “with an aging population, we should have more paramedics than firefighters. Our needs change. ... We should be able to take what’s collected (in taxes) and use that wisely. If it’s not done right, vote us out, but allow us a chance to be fiscally responsible. This bill takes the control from elected officials.”

Trustee Bob Streit (3rd) later said it appeared that bury and Deetjen were setting the stage for cutbacks in the fire department, which he opposes. A $2 million overtime tab would not be necessary, he said, if the fire department had full staffing levels.

“We used to have 108 firefighters. Now we have 72. The firefighters ... have to work overtime to cover the difference,” Streit said.

After the meeting, Trustee Terry Vorderer (4th) said village officials are not trying to weaken or break the firefighters union but are concerned about spending in the department.

“It’s gotten expensive, as everything else has in government. Elected leaders are looking for ways to control expenses and still maintain a safe community,” Vorderer said.



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