Opinion: Fire staffing bill strips more local control from Illinois cities

Staff Writer
Chillicothe Times-Bulletin

Leaders in Illinois communities large and small began sounding the alarm this spring about the climbing and potentially crippling costs of police and fire pensions.

Now they’re faced with another potentially costly mandate from the state of Illinois.

During the last 20 years, a variety of public pension changes were orchestrated between police and fire unions and lawmakers at the Statehouse with little input from local communities. Yet, local government is on the hook for the bill.

Take firefighters, for example. A group of Illinois mayors earlier this month outlined two decades of well-intentioned but unsustainable pension “sweeteners” enacted at the Statehouse that now are bootstrapping local communities. Among them:

• In 1993, lawmakers agreed to increase pension benefits for firefighters and their surviving spouses.

• In 1997, they increased benefits for dependent children of firefighters receiving duty or occupational disability benefits.

• In 1999, they increased cost-of-living adjustments, disability benefits and dependent benefits for firefighters, and they hiked the pension formula.

• In 2004, they increased benefits for deceased firefighters’ dependents.

• In 2009, they approved a 3-percent cost-of-living adjustment for firefighters who retired prior to July 1, 1977.

• And in 2013, they increased benefits for dependent children of firefighters who die without a surviving spouse.

Most Illinois communities are keeping up with their contributions to the pension system — state law requires them to do so — but the payments are squeezing out other services, such as street maintenance, sewer upgrades, library improvements, equipment purchases and more.

Relief may occur once Tier 2 employees, who have less lucrative benefits, reach retirement age, but that will take years. The current ratio of active and retired firefighters is nearly 1:1, according to the mayors, who want assistance from state lawmakers in relieving some of the pressure.

But instead of exploring the possibility of helping communities on that front, lawmakers now are attempting to wrest further control over firefighter personnel matters from local units of government and taxpayers. 

House Bill 5485, the “minimum manning bill,” is pending in the legislature and would change the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act to require fire department staffing levels to be negotiated, and arbitrated if needed, during collective bargaining.

The Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois says the act’s original intent was to include manning as a mandatory subject of bargaining for firefighters and that the issue repeatedly has been upheld in court and by the Illinois Labor Relations Board.

Among the “talking points” listed on one AFFI chapter’s website: “Many collective bargaining agreements across the state of Illinois have included minimum manning provisions without resulting in a hardship to the department or local unit of government. Since collective bargaining laws have been in effect, many municipalities have been able to negotiate substantial benefit reductions at the bargaining table by agreeing to minimum manning provisions.”

The problem lies in the state of Illinois making staffing levels subject to mandatory bargaining. Clearly, this move may further reduce or eliminate the say that taxpayers and local government officials — already struggling to balance the books in large part because of public safety pensions — have in the size of their fire departments.

The bill passed out of the House on April 3 in a 63-44 vote, with six lawmakers voting present. Local legislators were split on the issue: Reps. Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg, and Wayne Rosenthal, R-Morrisonville, voted no; Reps. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, and Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, voted yes. The legislation now is pending in the Senate.

No one begrudges firefighters — and police officers — a good living, a safe working environment and the ability to retire comfortably after years of service to the community. The jobs are difficult, and communities value good, well-trained first responders — especially when the chips are down. 

But Illinois’ local governments simply cannot afford another unfunded mandate handed down from the state legislature, nor can taxpayers afford to lose more control over issues that affect their tax bills.

Pension liability is an issue that will take time to resolve. Until then, state lawmakers must stop saddling communities with additional costly mandates and stripping them of local control over their finances.

 — GateHouse Media Illinois