First reported 9/23/2009 1:00 p.m.

The Village of Oak Park gave layoff notices to five firefighters the morning of Sept. 22, in a continuing effort to trim expenses in a poor economy.

With that, the village has laid off 19 employees this year, including an inspector in the engineering department who was let go a week earlier.

In addition to leaving an already empty position unfilled, the cuts will leave the Oak Park Fire Department with 59 sworn firefighters and one civilian, according to Village Manager Tom Barwin, down from a full staff of 65.

The cut was necessary, Barwin said, with village revenues about $2 million behind where officials predicted they would be coming into 2009. The financial situation is complicated, he added, because Oak Park is without a “rainy day” fund to weather shortfalls in its revenues. Skyrocketing pension costs also factored into the decision to lay off five people, he said.

Over the course of an entire year, the layoffs would save the village about $425,000 including the cost of benefits, according to Barwin, but Oak Park expects to incur about $100,000 in overtime to make up for decreased staffing levels.

Barwin says the layoffs will allow the village to keep all three of its fire stations open, reducing the number of firefighters on the three shifts each day from 21 to 19.

“We’re just continuing to work through our organization, and I think no department or division has been untouched by this belt-tightening effort,” Barwin said.

Union head upset

Lt. Tom Blecha, a 21-year Oak Park firefighter and president for the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 95, wishes the village would have handled the situation differently.

Oak Park did not sit down with the union and try to reach a compromise to avoid layoffs. Blecha said the village had considered letting firefighters go last year, but instead reorganized its management through retirements and elimination of positions to save about $500,000.

Blecha can’t recall a time in his 21 years with the village, when Oak Park has laid off firefighters.

“There’s always different ways to skin a cat,” he said. “What we’re looking at is five young guys that got sent home. It’s ridiculous that we weren’t even approached.”

The five released firemen ranged in age from 29 to 35 and were hired by the village between January 2006 and September 2007, according to Fire Chief Bill Bell. They were picked based on seniority.

Barwin said the village abided by the language of the firefighters’ contract, which ended in December 2005, in executing the layoffs. Oak Park needed to respond to decreased revenues immediately with no ability to spend more than they’re taking in, he said.

“These are good men and women; we value their service,” Barwin said. “This isn’t about that, it’s about, like any organization or family, we can’t deficit spend, and we’re trying to rebound from running up the credit card.”

Barwin met with Blecha this week and also planned to meet with the full executive board of the union for any suggestions on further cost savings.

Blecha has also suggested that the village apply for funds from a federal pot of $640 million available for municipalities to rehire laid-off firefighters. Barwin said Oak Park is open to the idea and is researching it.

The village previously applied for federal dollars to hire more police officers, but was rejected. Officials plan to apply again in the spring.

Oak Park has between 12 and 15 firefighters on staff who are eligible for retirement -at least 50 years old and with at least 20 years of service. The village will offer positions to the five laid-off firefighters as senior members retire.

“I’m hoping that we can get all five of them back here in the next six to eight months,” Bell said.

How the decision was reached

With public safety making up more than half of village hall’s budget of about $40 million, Oak Park needed to look at cuts somewhere in the fire department, Barwin said. They floated the idea of shutting down one of Oak Park’s three fire stations. But that would have meant longer response times, which the village board could not support.

The number of firefighters available during Oak Park’s three shifts will decrease from 21 to 19. However, Oak Park typically has 14 on staff during each shift (due to sick days and vacation), which will stay the same. This will leave Oak Park with the same level of fire staffing that it had for about 70 percent of last year, according to Bell.

“It’s never a good feeling when people get laid off,” said Village President David Pope. “Unfortunately, we’re not in an economic environment where we have the luxury of keeping people on the payroll if they’re not absolutely required to deliver the high levels of service that we’re committed to here in Oak Park.”

Down 10 positions since December, Blecha says that service levels will be very sensitive to vacation and sick time taken by firefighters.

“Any further would change how we respond,” he said. “We’re at absolute minimum.”

Pensions are also a huge factor, Barwin said, with Oak Park required to pay $2.8 million into the fire pension fund next year, which represents almost half the $5.8 million the village expects to spend on payroll for the fire department.

The village will continue to monitor its revenues, and Barwin is uncertain whether more layoffs are coming.

“These are economic times like we haven’t seen in many, many years,” said Village Trustee Ray Johnson. “We’re trying to react carefully and prudently to significantly decreased revenue without raising those same revenues from the taxpayer because they too are having difficult times.”


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