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posted: 4/25/2014 5:00 AM

Editorial: Don't take away local control of fire department staffing

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

If it is true, as the president of the union representing Illinois firefighters says, that there is "no more important working condition" for firefighters than the staffing size of the local force, ask yourself this: Why is the city of Chicago exempted from legislation that would require communities to negotiate staffing size with their firefighters unions?

The answer is simple: Because it is a terrible idea for the state to impose this demand on local communities, and the bill couldn't possibly pass against the likely opposition of the powerful mayor of Chicago. But with him niftily hustled out of the picture, the Democratic senators and representatives from the city will be only too happy to curry the favor of a powerful union while foisting upon the local communities of Illinois a proposal whose ultimate outcomes are the imposition of higher local property taxes and the subordination of every other public employee group in a community's budget priorities.

House Bill 5485 has already passed the House on a strongly partisan 63-44 vote. Its supporters -- primarily the state firefighters union, as nearly every local-government association as well as the state Fire Chiefs Association opposes it -- prey on the entirely valid sympathies of local citizens toward an employee group whose skill and dedication they deeply admire and appreciate.

This bill, however, will not make firefighters safer. Federal occupational safety regulations and other state and federal rules already can be, and are, used to ensure that communities do not subjugate the safety of their firefighters to overly stringent cost cutting.

What HB5485 will do is make it harder if not impossible for communities to shut down or reorganize fire stations they no longer need or whose benefits they can duplicate through agreements with neighboring communities. It will mean that arbitrators who have no interest or stake in the broad management of a community's quality of life will be making decisions about the town's budgeting priorities. It will mean the prospect of additional local pension costs on top of an already unmanageable pension burden. It will mean that the size of a town's police department or public works department will be, de facto, subject to the decisions of an arbitrator about the size of the fire department.

As, of course, will the property taxes that support all this.

This bill is the ultimate expression of a large, powerful union's interest in imposing its will on state lawmakers to enhance its own prestige. The fact is, local firefighters bargaining units can and do include staffing size in their negotiations with local communities and, at the local level, they usually can work out differences in a manner that meets all the interests of everyone involved.

Consider a situation as recent as last week and as suburban as Carpentersville, where the village and the local firefighters union announced an agreement ending a once-bitter standoff. The village had included the layoff of two firefighters among several measures taken to address an anticipated $400,000 budget shortfall. Firefighters filed a grievance, but before it went to arbitration under existing rules, they worked with the village to manage overtime spending so that the two jobs could be protected, safety would be assured at fires and other emergencies and the village could achieve the financial savings it needed to balance its budget.

Disputes like these should be settled locally, and they usually can be. And when they can't, mechanisms exist to bring the sides to resolution.

The state Senate returns to session next week and is likely to take up this legislation soon. Suburban senators have a real choice to make in deciding how they will vote. Will they listen to the town leaders who are crying out about the multiple injustices and dangers of this legislation? Or will they respond to the manipulative plaints and financial cudgel of a powerful union?

We -- and scores of suburban communities -- are counting on the former.

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