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Police and fire unions blast inspector general’s $1.2 billion in budget ideas

Updated: October 29, 2012 6:53AM

Police and fire unions on Thursday torched a $1.2 billion roadmap from the city’s inspector general that calls for reducing staffing levels on fire apparatus, converting 20 percent of all engines and trucks to ambulances, staffing the Fire Prevention Bureau with civilians and eliminating “non-salary compensation” for firefighters and police officers.

Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, said Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s “far-fetched” suggestions would “most certainly endanger the lives” of Chicago residents, employees and visitors as well as his own members.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends that a minimum of five firefighters staff each piece of fire apparatus in high-target areas, which includes Chicago, a densely-populated city with “high-rise buildings, special needs facilities, industrial and manufacturing districts and numerous hazardous materials-producing institutions,” Ryan said.

“For someone like Mr. Ferguson … to make these kinds of recommendations is irresponsible and dangerous. When a call for help is made to the Chicago Fire Department, the citizens of this great city need and deserve a fully-staffed response,” Ryan said.

“To suggest that the Fire Prevention Bureau … be turned over to civilians is equally irresponsible and ridiculous. These members regularly inspect buildings, schools, hospitals and factories to uncover potential fire hazards and other dangers to the public and also assure that there is adequate water supply for fire extinguishment. The … primary function of government must be to protect its citizens. To reduce the value of a human life down to mere dollars and cents is just plain wrong.”

Fraternal Order of Police President Mike Shields was equally incensed by the $144.4 million proposal to eliminate “non-salary compensation” and by Ferguson’s proposal to hire civilians for the Chicago Police Department’s Forensic and Administrative Services Bureaus ($6.7 million).

“Manpower is way down. Murder is way up — unlike other major cities. Now, the inspector general wants to slash the police budget,” Shields said.

“The city needs to get its priorities in order. I want to fight crime, I want less people getting killed. Cutting police resources will not accomplish any of that.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has a strained relationship with Ferguson, shot down the inspector general’s revenue-raising suggestions, albeit a bit more gently.

They include:

■Abandoning the city’s two-tiered amusement tax and imposing a nine percent levy on all forms of live theater, music and cultural performances — including non-profits, small theaters with a capacity under 750 and health clubs — to raise $116 million.

■ Resurrecting Emanuel’s controversial campaign promise to broaden the sales tax to an array of legal, medical, financial, real estate, car repair and accounting services not now covered — branded the “Rahm tax” — to yield $500 million.

■And imposing a $5 London-style congestion fee on vehicles entering the city’s Central Business District during the morning and evening rush periods to raise $210 million, even after a 20 percent reduction in traffic and a $300 million capital outlay for checkpoints equipped with cameras and electronic transmitters.

“Seven of the IG’s proposals involve increases to or broadening of taxes and fees, including one that he admits could be considered a massive tax increase at a time when Chicagoan can least afford it,” the mayor’s office said in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The mayor agrees that massive tax increases are NOT something Chicagoans can afford. He has already rejected any increases in property, sales, fuel or amusement [taxes] and said he will turn to reforms and efficiencies first before every turning to taxpayers.”

In 2010, Ferguson rocked the boat with a $247.3 million menu of cost-cutting options. Last year, he upped the ante to $3 billion, including a one percent city income tax; a $2.50-per-vehicle toll on Lake Shore Drive; privatizing garbage collection or mandating a “pay-as-you-throw” fee; and imposing the rush-hour congestion fee.

Ferguson also resurrected his proposal to reduce from five employees to four the minimum required to staff every piece of fire apparatus. That’s the issue that touched off the bitter 1980 firefighters strike.

This year, Ferguson’s cost-cutting menu has a lot of repeats and a few additions.

New on the chopping block are: 25 percent cuts in both the city’s communications staff ($920,000) and hours of payment at service offices $1.6 million); eliminating overnight hours at the city’s new-and-improved 311 system ($400,000); including Chicago Police officers in the city’s wellness plan aimed at reducing skyrocketing health care costs ($6.4 million) and civilianizing the scandal-scarred Fire Prevention Bureau ($1.5 million).

On the revenue side, new ideas include: charging a $44 penalty for false residential burglar alarms ($1.9 million); basing sign and permit fees on square footage and raising downtown fees ($350,000); establishing a pedicab license and imposing the ground transportation tax on pedicabs and instituting variable pricing for street closures ($1.7 million).

Last year, the mere suggestion of fire cuts raised the fire commissioner’s blood to a boil.

Robert Hoff said he was “deathly against” closing fire houses or reducing staffing requirement on fire apparatus and warned that it would trigger an increase in fire deaths.

In contract talks with firefighters, whose contract expired June 30, Emanuel subsequently took aim at such treasured union perks as: holiday and duty availability pay; clothing allowance; pay grades; premium pay; non-duty lay-up coverage; the physical fitness incentive and the seven percent premium paid to cross-trained firefighter paramedics.

The mayor’s plan would also allow “double houses” that include both engines and trucks to be staffed by nine firefighters instead of ten.

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