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Rahm Emanuel: Firefighters not ‘immune from . . . change and reform’

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel  |  Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 6, 2012 9:06AM

Chicago firefighters “do a great job,” but they’re not “immune from the change and reform” needed to solve the city’s financial crisis and deliver “greater value” to taxpayers, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday.

Tom Ryan, president of Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, has characterized the cost-cutting contract concessions the mayor is seeking from firefighters when their contract expires June 30 as “horrendous,” “insulting” and “ridiculous.”

Emanuel refused to respond in kind, nor would he discuss specifics of his proposal to target perks that, one union leader claimed, add $7,000 to the average firefighter’s annual paycheck.

He simply said that “change” and “reform” are required everywhere and that no interest group gets a pass.

“Our firefighters do a great job serving the city . . . They do hard work. We will make sure that they’re properly — not only compensated, but respected for the work that they do . . . [But] no part of the budget is immune from change and reform to get greater value for the taxpayers as well as greater service for the citizens of Chicago. . . . We’re not shying away from difficult decisions,” Emanuel said.

“You describe [the proposals] as cuts. [But] there are places that, while negotiations are private, that I would say are reforms.”

The mayor said he understands why Ryan has taken a hard line to protect the interests of his members.

But, he said, “I’ve got to make sure that the taxpayers and the residents are represented. That’s my role. . . . I respect what Tom has to do . . . But I’ve got to make sure that we’re making the changes that are necessary for the future and we’re not just doing things that we used to do because we used to do ’em . . . We’re not gonna do it just because we did it in the past.”

The Chicago Sun-Times reported Wednesday that Emanuel is seeking a laundry list of cost-cutting concessions from Chicago firefighters that take aim at such treasured union perks as holiday and duty availability pay; clothing allowance; pay grades; premium pay; the physical fitness incentive and the seven percent premium paid to cross-trained firefighter-paramedics.

Ald. Nick Sposato (36th), a former Chicago firefighter, sided with his union brethren.

“It looks almost like you’re looking at a 10 percent pay cut to me. That’s pretty drastic I think,” said Sposato, one of the big losers in the ward remap.

“The city starts here. The union starts there and, somewhere, they’ll come together and resolve all of this, I would hope, and cooler heads will prevail.”

The mayor’s plan does not include closing fire stations. But it would alter the minimum manning requirement that triggered the bitter 1980 firefighters strike.

The current contract requires that every piece of fire apparatus be staffed by at least five employees. Emanuel’s plan calls for all “double houses” that include both engines and trucks to be staffed by nine firefighters instead of 10.

Rookie probation would double—from nine months to 18 months.

And just eight months after denying plans to upgrade ambulance service in Chicago, Emanuel wants to covert the city’s 15 basic-life-support ambulances to advanced life support.

The plan would cost roughly $50,000 for every one of the 15 BLS ambulances. It would leave the city with 75 ambulances capable of providing the most sophisticated level of care.

Chicago currently has 60 ALS ambulances, each staffed by two paramedics qualified to administer intravenous medication. ALS ambulances are stocked with drugs and equipped with heart monitoring devices.

The 15 BLS ambulances are staffed by emergency medical technicians who undergo less training. BLS ambulances do not have medicine or monitoring equipment. They are only permitted to transport patients to hospitals.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson has estimated that Chicago taxpayers could save $57 million-a-year by reducing — from five employees to four — the minimum number of employees required to staff every piece of fire apparatus.

Ferguson has further estimated that the city could save $52 million-a-year by eliminating the duty availability pay that compensates both police officers and firefighters for being on 24-hour call. For firefighters, the perk costs the city nearly $14.3 million a year.

The inspector general pegged the annual uniform allowance at anywhere from $1,250 to $1,500 per firefighter, depending on the shift.

Chicago firefighters have been waiting for Emanuel to drop the other shoe ever since last fall.

That’s when the mayor made it clear he planned to take a hard line in contract talks — even though his own hero fire commissioner Robert Hoff was “deathly against” closing fire houses or reducing the minimum staffing requirement on fire apparatus.

Four months later, Hoff abruptly resigned, leaving firefighters without a champion.

The scary thing for firefighters is that the mayor’s proposed contract concessions come on top of his plan to solve the city’s pension crisis, which would take even more money out of firefighters’ paychecks.

Emanuel’s pension plan calls for a five percent increase in employee pension contributions; a 10-year freeze in cost-of-living increases for retirees; a five-year increase in the retirement age and a two-tiered pension system for new and old employees.

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