More than 450 supporters of the Naperville police officers ended their informational picket just before 7 p.m. Monday and filled the city's council chambers with an energy not seen for quite some time.
Less than two hours later, the air was sucked out of the chamber as council member Grant Wehrli tabled, for three weeks, the city's decision to eliminate two vacant positions and lay off six officers as a cost-savings measure.
In the meantime, the six officers will be paid through Monday, Nov. 22, and then will be laid off. The layoffs were announced last week, days after the city approved a three-year contract that gives officers raises of 3.3 percent for 2009-10 and 3 percent in both 2010-11 and 2011-12. It also calls for a 50 percent increase in police personnel health insurance premium contributions, to 15 percent from 10 percent of the total premium cost.
Wehrli said the council would be better suited to vote on the move, which would decrease the number of sworn personnel in the police department from 176 to 168, after a Nov. 30 budget update.
"I'm not ready to vote on this. I don't know what the future holds," he said. "We need more facts and data and should delay this vote until after we have that discussion. Maybe the number gets better. Maybe it gets worse."
A motion to table ends discussion of the topic until the next meeting. But Councilmen Paul Hinterlong and Doug Krause said they, too, wanted to table the discussion.
"I think we need to look at the total budget because public safety needs to be the last thing we need to cut," he said. "I'm not comfortable voting until we know where we are and what we have to do."
The move caught several council and audience members off guard.
Union President Vince Clark, who led the 450 sign-carrying and chanting demonstrators on an approximately 1½-mile informational picket from the Judd Kendall VFW at 908 W. Jackson Ave. to city hall, was speechless following the abrupt end to the debate. And not because he lost his voice yelling into the megaphone during the walk.
"The city council called an audible on this tonight. I don't know what else to say," Clark said. "I just hope they follow through with what they said they're going to do."
Councilman Dick Furstenau, angry with the decision to table the motion, told the audience, made up almost entirely of off-duty officers from local municipalities and supporters, that it's time the department felt the pain after a decade of good times.
"Since 2000 the police have received 52.3 percent increases in salary ... and the CPI (Consumer Price Index) has been 30.5 percent. That adds up," Furstenau said before being booed and hissed at for suggesting all employees could keep their jobs if they took pay freezes for three years rather than raises. "In 2002, 21 city employees made over $100,000, and three of them were administration-level police officers and officers. In 2009 there were 216 people that made over $100,000. Seventy-one were police officers. That is the problem. We do not compound the taxes we collect."
Fourteen residents and shop owners, many who picketed across town with the union leadership, pleaded with the city to find other ways to close the projected $5 million deficit for next year. The city, they said, cannot afford to lose any more police officers without compromising safety.
"The right thing to do is to bring these six people back," resident Richard Miller said to a round of applause. "We need them. We need them more than we need you."
The council will now vote on the reduced staffing plan at its Dec. 7 meeting.