Municipal leaders are sounding the alarm over legislation they say could take decisions regarding fire department staffing levels out of their hands.

Proponents of the measure, which passed the Illinois House earlier this month, say it’s a safety issue, while municipal officials argue it could further stress already tight budgets.

The Senate later this spring is expected to consider the legislation, which would clarify or modify the state’s Public Labor Relations Act that gave police officers and firefighters the right to bargain collectively. The change would allow fire department staffing or minimum manning levels to be negotiated — along with wages, benefits and work rules — and potentially subject to arbitration.

If ultimately signed into law, the measure — HB 5485 — wouldn’t apply to Chicago.

Some towns, such as Oak Lawn, already have staffing requirements built into their contracts with firefighters.

What’s alarming municipal officials is that decisions about personnel numbers could, if not worked out at the bargaining table, be made in arbitration on a case-by-case basis.

Groups such as the Northwest Municipal Conference and the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association warn that if communities are required to maintain certain fire staffing levels, it could force layoffs in other areas.

“Manning has never been an issue that could go to arbitration,” Ed Paesel, executive director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, said, adding that the group’s members are “very concerned” about the legislation.

An official with the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois said concerns of municipal officials are overblown.

Pat Devaney, president of the labor group, said the legislation doesn’t mandate that communities establish minimum personnel levels and would codify court rulings that have upheld the use of arbitration in maintaining staffing numbers.

“This (bill) is not going to change the outcomes of arbitration that are happening today,” Devaney said.

He cited Oak Lawn, where, in 2008, firefighters filed an unfair labor practice with the Illinois Labor Relations Board, claiming village officials hadn’t abided by staffing language in their contract. The board sided with the union, and village appeals were rejected by the circuit and appellate courts.

Devaney said the firefighters’ local spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” pursuing the issue, and that with the legislation “we’re trying to prevent that from happening over and over throughout the state.”

In a video she posted earlier this month, Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury described the minimum manning requirements in her community as “archaic,” and said it “ties our hands” as far as allocating municipal resources.

Higher costs, loss of control

Communities could face huge increases in personnel costs, forcing them to resort to higher property taxes or cuts in other areas, Steve Quigley, executive director of the Will County Governmental League, said.

“We are looking at this as nothing more than a backdoor property tax increase,”  he said.

Quigley said that, in Will County, a firefighter costs the average municipality about $130,000 a year with salary, benefits and pension. To raise the staffing level at one fire station by one firefighter would cost the municipality more than three times that in order to cover shifts around the clock, he said.

Palos Hills Mayor Gerald Bennett, who’s president of Southwest Conference of Mayors, called it a potentially “huge, costly venture” for communities. His city doesn’t have its own municipal fire department — it’s covered by a fire protection district — but Bennett said he has not talked to any southwest suburban mayors who are supportive of the bill.

Mary Randle, Metro West Council of Government director, said some members of the organization are concerned about the legislation. The Aurora-based organization represents a number of municipalities in Kane, Kendall and DeKalb counties.

“They don’t like the idea of taking away local control,” she said. “Local is a big issue to them. It ends up being another unfunded mandate. Municipalities’ backs are already against the wall with pension costs.”

Elgin Fire Chief John Fahy said municipal officials are best suited to decide “how to staff their fire departments as part of the overall strategy of running a community.”

Should an arbitrator set a staffing figure and “factors in the community or the economy change, local leaders will not be able to adjust staffing to address that change,” Fahy said.

Eamon O’Dowd, president of Glenview Firefighters Local 4186, said firefighters should have a say in how many of them work each shift.

He said village administrators first suggested giving themselves control of manning by reducing daily personnel in January 2011.

“This was a proposal, but a policy they wanted while we were in contract negotiations. This should be separate from what’s on the negotiating table,” said O’Dowd, an 18-year paramedic and firefighter with Glenview.

Glenview firefighters also offered to save $300,000 a year by reducing overtime and capping salary raises for two years, O’Dowd said, in return for manning assurances.

Despite complaints from firefighters about proper staffing levels, Don Owen, deputy village manager for Glenview, said the bill would reduce municipalities’ ability to govern.

“It really would take away what elected officials and village administrators are supposed to do for residents,” he said. “It would not allow us to perform tradeoffs in budgeting and be accountable to residents. It’s a very bad piece of legislation if we’re mandated to staffing levels.”

Jim Patterson, Glenview village president, said a third ambulance was removed but only during times from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. when there are fewer emergency calls.

“Over three years we saved $1 million in the fire department, and the emergency response times were pretty comparable because we have a mutual-aid response system with other villages,” Patterson said.

“And we don’t make decisions in public safety based on savings,” Owen said.

Patty Schuh, a spokeswoman for Illinois Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, said it could be the middle of next month before senators get a good look at the bill. She said Radogno is “gathering input” on the issue and has been hearing from municipal officials who oppose it and firefighters who support it.

Contributing: Steve Lord, Mike Danahey and Todd Shields.