Excerpts from the ChicagoSunTimes.com:

The Chicago City Council’s most powerful black alderman is demanding changes in state pension laws to remove a major impediment to diversifying the Chicago Fire Department’s overwhelmingly white brass.

Fourteen of the fire department’s 61 exempt-rank jobs — 23 percent — are vacant. The 47 bosses who remain are 78.7 percent white, 12.7 percent black, and 8.5 percent Hispanic.

Fire officials must retire at age 63. But members of the exempt ranks must pay for their own health insurance until they hit 65. They also lose pay perks, including vacation time, overtime and supplemental pay. In addition, the state pension code doesn’t allow exempt fire officers to earn pension benefits based on their current salary. Instead, their pension benefits are based on the lower salary of their most recent union-covered job. All of that can cost as much as $25,000-a-year.

In mid-June, thirty-two members of the Chicago Fire Department’s exempt ranks returned to their career service ranks, but continued to act up in the exempt positions from which they resigned. That made them eligible for overtime, holiday pay, duty availability, Hazmat and other forms of supplemental and specialty pay afforded to members of the rank-and-file.

The fire officials are seeking pension changes, expanded health insurance benefits and pay raises, but have, so far, been unable to convince Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Sources said the mayor discontinued the longstanding practice of boosting the pay of exempt-rank members in response to union contracts that increased pay for the rank-and-file.

The salary and specialty pay of lower-ranking union members meets and, in some cases, exceeds, their commanders. As a result, for example, battalion chiefs are reluctant to accept promotion to deputy district chief because it will cost them so much money.

The mayor’s office has argued that the problem can be solved, only with bill that would allow exempt fire employees to earn a pension based on the pay for their current jobs.

In 1973, a federal class-action lawsuit accused the Chicago Fire Department of discriminatory hiring and promotional practices. At the time, only 4 percent of Chicago’s 5,000 firefighters were black. The lawsuit resulted in a four-year freeze on hiring and promotions and a federal consent decree mandating minority hiring. Between 1977 and 1979, the number of black firefighters increased from 150 to roughly 400.

Under Emanuel, Chicago resolved a bitter legal battle the mayor inherited from former Mayor Richard M. Daley, stemming from the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 firefighters entrance exam. The city agreed to hire 111 bypassed African-American firefighters and borrow the $78.4 million needed to compensate nearly 6,000 African-Americans who never got that chance.