Excerpts from the ChicagoTribune.com:

Legislation that could turn the tide in Oak Lawn’s long-standing effort to reduce minimum manpower requirements for its fire department has again been introduced in the Illinois General Assembly.

Two identical bills introduced in the House this year — retreads of past bills that failed — would require arbitrators to give primary consideration to a municipality’s ability to fund proposals when resolving contract disputes.

Passage of a bill into law would breathe new life into Oak Lawn’s long-stated mission to reduce fire department shift staffing from 21 to 19 — a cost-cutting measure that officials say could save nearly $1 million annually on overtime without impacting public safety.

The village, unable to make headway with the firefighters union in its past two contract negotiations with the bargaining unit, has taken the issue to an interest arbitrator.

In both cases an arbitrator sided with the union, in favor of the status quo of 21 firefighters per shift.

“It is clear, based on the evidence presented, that the reason that the village wishes to reduce manning, is primarily economic, and not operational,” arbitrator Steven Bierig wrote in his Jan. 1 decision. “This is not a valid reason to obtain a breakthrough change in interest arbitration.”

When a municipality’s ability to pay for union proposals is not the primary concern, proponents of the bills argue, elected officials lose their sovereignty over the allocation of municipal finances.

An arbitrator may rule in favor of a union proposal under the premise that a city has the ability to raise taxes, dip into reserves or take out loans to pay for any cost increases, Oak Lawn Village Manager Larry Deetjen said. That is akin to stripping an elected body of its power to make the crucial fiscal decisions that should be its purview.

In January, Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, introduced HB797, which gives primary consideration to an employer’s financial ability to fund proposals based on existing available resources. Sosnowski said he supports reforms of the arbitration process that give decision-making control back to local authorities.

But the bill, stalled in a House subcommittee for the past month, has its detractors. At issue is the language of the amendment it makes to the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act.

The proposed amendment states that an arbitrator should not base his decision on an assumption that lines of credit or reserve funds are available or that the employer may or will receive or develop new sources of revenue or increase existing sources of revenue.

Pat Devaney, president of the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois, said that, as written, the bill would eliminate an arbitrator’s ability to perform a comprehensive assessment of any impasse in contract negotiations. Because an arbitrator would be required to primarily base his decision on a municipality’s “existing available resources,” elected officials could simply shift funds into reserve or lower revenue levels prior to entering arbitration to create the illusion of financial hardship where it doesn’t exist, Devaney said.

“This would allow a local unit of government prior to entering into collective bargaining, even if only on paper, to lower existing revenue sources,” he said. “Now that the law is changed, (an arbitrator) couldn’t consider what was previously done or what they might do in the future in terms of increasing revenue. They could only look at a snapshot of what exists today.”

He argues that the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act is not in need of a change. The law already compels arbitrators to consider a government’s financial state when rendering a decision, albeit not as the “primary consideration as the proposed bills would require.

Oak Lawn officials reject the assertion that arbitrators already seriously consider a municipality’s ability to pay and point to the village’s own case with its firefighters as a prime example.

Skyrocketing annual pension obligations, which have more than doubled since 2013 to $5.91 million, are the primary reason that Moody’s downgraded Oak Lawn’s credit rating in February, Deetjen said.

“If we were able to get this legislative change, and change the manning for the fire department, we would take those monies into the pension,” he said, noting he thinks passage of the proposed arbitration reform bill would likely result in a credit rating upgrade for the village.

thanks Dan

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