The SouthTownStar has an article on the continuing issue of the North Riverside politicians attempt to privatize the fire department.

The state’s largest firefighters union claims that a lawsuit filed by North Riverside to terminate the village’s fire union is motivated by politics, not financial problems.

“Over the last 10 years, North Riverside hasn’t made a single full payment into the union pension fund,” said Pat Devaney, president of the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois. “In five of those 10 years, it made no payments at all. Zero!”

A lawsuit filed on behalf of North Riverside by Evergreen Park attorney Burton Odelson contends that the west suburb no longer can afford to make payments into the fire pension fund as required by law. The first-of-its-kind lawsuit in Illinois asks a Cook County judge to dissolve the firefighters union so the suburb can privatize its fire department.

“This isn’t about the suburb’s ability to fund the pension,” Devaney said. “It’s about politics.”

North Riverside’s mayor wants a private company, Paramedic Services of Illinois, to provide fire protection for the village. The company has provided the town’s ambulance service for 28 years.

Devaney contends that PSI has made $3,800 in donations in recent years to the Voters Improvement Party, a political party whose members include the mayor and a majority of village trustees. “This is a no-bid contract worth $9 million awarded to a company that has made campaign contributions to the mayor and his political party,” Devaney said, adding that those donations represent about 25 percent of the party’s campaign funds since 2005.

“It would be illegal under state law for the state to award a no-bid contract to a company that made campaign contributions to state officials,” he said. “But the law doesn’t apply to municipalities, so North Riverside does this to reward a company that makes campaign contributions and claims it is all about saving the taxpayers money.”

The village, with annual revenue of $14.4 million and expenses of about $15.1 million, claims that required contributions to its fire pension fund have increased by a whopping 340 percent (from $175,793 per year to $773,055) from 2003 to 2013.

Pension reform legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2011 requires that all municipal pension plans be at least 90 percent funded by 2040. The law also gives public-employee unions in 2016 the right to begin intercepting sales tax revenue from the state to towns if pension funds are not adequately financed according to a state schedule.

North Riverside argues that power could mean the village might lose millions of dollars in sales tax revenue, forcing it to slash government services.

Odelson said the village would save more than $745,000 next year and $4 million over the next four years by contracting with a private company to provide fire protection.

In addition, all of the village’s firefighters would have to be hired by the private company under the terms of the contract.

“All of the firefighters would be hired by the private company for 11 years, at which time 12 of the 14 full-time firefighters would be eligible to retire,” Odelson said. “Their benefits would remain the same, the pensions would be paid, and we even offered a salary increase if they accepted the deal but they turned us down.”

But Devaney believes village officials are not motivated by budget concerns but rather “political retribution against the union. The (union), in the last mayoral election, supported the mayor’s opponent. He’s getting back at the members by refusing to negotiate with the union in good faith. “We will document that in court, and this lawsuit will be thrown out because it violates the fair labor laws and the right of individuals to engage in the democratic election process.”

Odelson said the firefighters union contributed more money to the opponent of the mayor than the mayor received from Paramedic Services of Illinois.

If North Riverside should win this lawsuit, it’s likely that several Southland towns will file similar lawsuits seeking to terminate union contracts to preserve the towns’ financial solvency.

“They have real financial problems,” he said. “North Riverside does not. While failing to fund the firefighters pension, it was making payments on a regular basis into the IMRF (Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund), which covers village employees.” North Riverside made payments of $203,375 to the IMRF in 2003 but paid nothing into the fire pension fund in the same year, according to information provided by the firefighters union. It says that in 2006, the village again made zero payments into the fire pension fund, while contributing $216,000 to the IMRF. And in 2009, 2010 and 2011, the town again failed to pay anything to the firefighters fund, while making contributions of $231,474, $248,461 and $247,741, respectively to the IMRF, according to the union.

“What that tells me is the village made a deliberate decision to create a pension crisis so it could use that as an excuse to violate the rights of the union firemen,” Devaney said.

As for the south suburbs, he said the solution lies in consolidating municipal fire departments into fire protection districts. “When you eliminate duplicative costs, the huge salaries of fire chiefs and deputy fire chiefs and other administrative costs, the savings would provide the public with the same degree of safety they have now at a much lower cost,” Devaney said.

“What we’re saying is that when a contract expires on April 30, 2014, it ends,” Odelson said. “The village has the right to privatize when the contract expires. That’s it.”