Des Plaines approves firefighter raises

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

After more than a year of negotiations, the Des Plaines city council on Monday approved a three-year contract with its firefighters' union, granting wage increases of up to 2.5 percent through 2012.

The agreement is retroactive to Jan. 1, 2010, as the city's 87 firefighters have been working without a contract since then.

All fire captains, lieutenants, inspectors and firefighter - paramedics will receive an increase this year of 1.75 percent, a 2.25 percent increase in 2011 and 2.5 percent increase in 2012.

All other ranks also will see wage increases so that the existing wage gap between their salaries and those of higher rank remains through the new contract period, Fire Chief Alan Wax said.

The contract was approved 5-3 with yes votes from alderman Patti Haugeberg of the 1st Ward, John Robinson of the 2nd Ward, Matt Bogusz of the 3rd Ward and Jean Higgason of the 4th Ward. Aldermen James Brookman of the 5th Ward, Mark Walsten of the 6th Ward and Rosemary Argus of the 8th Ward all voted against the measure.

Brookman suggested the city postpone the decision on the firefighters' contract until after the city's 2011 budget hearings next week.

"I think, overall, the contract is very good," Brookman said. "I do believe it should be deferred until the budget talks have been held."

Argus said the city already is drowning in debt and doesn't have enough of a fund balance to cover emergencies, let alone afford salary increases.

"Our city owes $70 million, plus $24 million in interest," she said. "We owe millions to the police pension and firemen's pension. How are we going to pay down our debt if we continue to spend?"

Acting City Manager Jason Slowinski said the city's fund balance has improved considerably over the past couple of years.

"It used to be a couple of days operating expenses, and it is better now," he said.

The city made drastic cuts in 2009 and 2010.

In 2009, Des Plaines laid off 12 employees and scaled back operations, including privatizing some city services.

This year, the city eliminated 38 employee positions through layoffs, attrition and early retirement incentives.

Earlier this year, the city council voted not to give what would have been a roughly 3.5 percent pay raise to about 25 to 30 nonunion, nonmanagement employees.

Yet, about three-fourths of the city's approximately 350 employees who belong to police, fire and public works unions will continue to receive raises based on performance reviews.

Officials have said the police and public works contracts will not be opened for renegotiation.

Last year, the city's 12 department heads and other senior staff members voluntarily gave up their pay raises, saving the city about $70,000. Even so, budgeted expenditures for 2010 totaled $101 million.

Wax said the new contract is a considerable compromise from the previous three-year agreement in which firefighters received a 3.5 percent wage increase each year.

"The union and its bargaining team, they certainly recognized the city's concerns and the city's situation and negotiated accordingly," Wax said. "My thanks to the firefighters, to the union members. I am very proud of them on how this all went."

A union representative could not be reached for comment Monday night, and none were present at the council meeting.

Wax said during the course of the new contract the number of full-time fire inspectors - presently, there are three - will decrease to one by the end of the agreement.

Those two fire inspectors will go back to being regular shift firefighters, replacing two senior firefighters who will be offered an early retirement incentive.

"We will send out a notice to our employees who want to retire," Wax said.

The department then will hire part-time firefighters at a lesser cost to serve as fire inspectors - a concession negotiated to save the city money, Wax said. He could not estimate how much the move would save.

"This is a model that is used in many places throughout the suburbs very successfully," Wax said. "The fact that the union was willing to go down this road with us represents a very big compromise."

The city council will meet Sept. 28-29 to review General Fund revenues and expenditures, and on Sept. 30 to discuss public safety. Discussions will continue on all other city funds Oct. 20 and 25.