Elgin, firefighters union at odds over raise deferral

 
 
Updated 2/10/2021 10:58 AM

Elgin firefighters are sounding the alarm on a budget cut they believe will result in longer emergency response times. But city officials say those fears are overblown and that the cut can be averted if firefighters are willing to do their part to balance the city's books.

With pandemic-related budget shortfalls projected, city officials asked firefighters to defer their contractual 2.5% salary increase for one year and extend their contract through 2022. City administrators said nonunion Elgin employees and managers have foregone raises, helping to keep the budget out of the red. Collective bargaining units like the firefighters were exempt from other furloughs, pay cuts and layoffs city workers have endured.

 

The fire union bucked the request to defer its raise, causing the administration to slash $430,000 from the fired department's budget.

The union says they are willing to defer their cost of living raises for a year -- on one condition. The union wants city officials to guarantee they won't cut the fire department's budget, on top of the raise deferral, next year. They say city officials have refused that demand.

The issue is coming to a head as plans move forward on instituting the $430,000 cut.

The city plans to reduce fire department expenses by replacing a fire engine at Station 6, located at 707 W. Chicago St., with an ambulance once staffing reaches overtime levels, which would be about 77% of the time. The cost savings comes from sending out a two-person crew with an ambulance, as opposed to three on an engine.

"Station 6 does not have an ambulance and instead uses a fire engine to respond to the ambulance calls that comprise the overwhelming majority of its activity in a given year," said City Manager Rick Kozol in a news release. Kozol said Station 6 is the city's most centrally located station and is supported with firefighting apparatus coverage from the surrounding six other stations in Elgin.

Elgin Fire Chief Robb Cagann. said "well over 95%" of the area covered by Station 6 can still be reached within their standard 4-minute travel time.

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"If we go to a fire, we send three fire engines, one ladder truck, an ambulance and a battalion chief," he said. "If we have to implement this plan, we will still be sending the same number of firefighters with the same number of suppression vehicles to all reported fires." He said the only difference in service would come from a delay on when the last engine arrives at a scene, which he estimated could be as much as two and a half minutes.

He added that emergency medical service calls are about 74% of what they do on a daily basis, "So we're also enhancing our EMS capabilities citywide by adding a sixth transport vehicle."

Fire union President Joe Galli said firefighters don't want to do anything that takes one of the city's fire engines out of service. Though impossible to quantify, Galli said forcing other fire stations to pick up the slack means response times for some emergency calls will take longer. And all feedback from citizens has always been fast response times are the No. 1 expectation in return for the tax dollars they pay for fire service.

The union says that in exchange for the deferral they want a written guarantee that the planned changes wouldn't be implemented, Galli said, because mistrust of city administration grew after firefighters agreed to not increase their pay in 2010 and 2011. But then officials cut the department's budget on top of that both times, Galli said.

"If you're familiar with the Peanuts cartoon, this is like Lucy with the football," Galli said. "We keep running, and they keep pulling the football. We're not going to do that anymore."

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