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Article updated: 6/26/2013 11:14 AM

Barrington urges fire district to hire firefighters expected to lose jobs

By Eric Peterson

Though Barrington officials are still contemplating the Barrington Countryside Fire Protection District's request the village "lease" it 18 firefighters for two years, village officials are suggesting the fire district instead hire those firefighters at full salary and benefits.

But fire district President Tom Rowan believes that simple, lateral transfer would violate state law -- the reason for the district's lease request in the first place.

"We can't do it," Rowan said Tuesday. "The state statute is very clear on that."

Fire district Attorney Rich Curran said there are too many legal and practical steps the district would have to take to hire its own workforce in six months, as opposed to contracting with either the village or a private firm for personnel.

"I don't know that we could do all that testing for 33 people before Jan. 1," Curran said. "The pension is a huge component that has to be taken into consideration. It's not as simple as, 'Just hire them.' There are practical issues and a timing issue."

The fire district is planning to end its long-running contractual relationship with the Barrington Fire Department and start its own department at the end of the year.

The district is a separate taxing body that covers a 48-square-mile area including parts of Barrington Hills, Lake Barrington, South Barrington, Inverness and unincorporated Cook, Lake and McHenry counties.

Though the district's new arrangement will include two stations and fire equipment it already owns, it will lose the village's unionized firefighters-paramedics who serve the district today.

Approximately 18 firefighters are expected to be laid off by Barrington if the separation occurs.

District officials say they're looking for a way to save the firefighters' jobs while also utilizing their experience and knowledge of the area.

Once laid off by the village, the firefighters would lose further contributions to their pensions. The district would not be able to start a fire commission immediately and would need a tax-hike levy to be able to provide pension contributions.

Part of the reason for the two-year lease proposal was to buy time to identify a long-term option for personnel.

"We figured we would have enough time to see what our other options were," Rowan said.

Barrington Village Manager Jeff Lawler doesn't believe there are legal obstacles preventing the district from hiring laid-off firefighters. A meeting is being planned between the village and district to discuss the leasing proposal.

"We want to make sure we understand it completely," Lawler said.

Barrington officials worry that retaining more firefighters than it needs for another two years keeps the village on the hook for potentially lifelong disability payments. Last week they calculated $160 million as the worst-case scenario if all 18 firefighters were to suffer career-ending injuries.

The village also is urging adoption of an automatic aid agreement that would see both agencies cooperating by taking primary responsibility for calls closest to their respective fire stations.

The Barrington village board expects to hear a consultant's report July 15 on recommendations for the restructuring of its department.

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