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Ferguson takes aim at firefighters’ $5 million uniform allowance

Chicago firefighters — shown in dress uniforms for the funeral in December of colleague Daniel Capuano — get a uniform allowance that is among the most generous in the nation, according to Inspector General Joe Ferguson. | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago taxpayers are shelling out $5 million-a-year to provide a uniform allowance to firefighters that’s more like an “automatic cash bonus” because it’s “completely unmoored from any determination of actual need or use,” Inspector General Joe Ferguson concluded Wednesday.

Four years ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel took aim at treasured union perks that included the clothing allowance; holiday and duty-availability pay; pay grades; premium pay; non-duty lay-up coverage; a physical fitness incentive and a 7-percent premium paid to cross-trained firefighter-paramedics.

The mayor subsequently backed away from all of those concession demands in a pre-election contract that won him the surprise endorsement of a Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 that had endorsed mayoral challenger Gery Chico over Emanuel in 2011.

The new, five-year contract called for Chicago firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians to get an 11-percent pay raise over five years, but ends free health care for those who retire between the ages of 55 and 65.

Now, Inspector General Joe Ferguson is taking aim at that uniform allowance in an audit that examined the “issuance, exchange and repair of uniform items” at the Chicago Fire Department’s Commissary.

That’s a storefront run by an outside contractor that issues and sells uniforms under a five-year, $11.7 million contract that expires in 2019.

The city provides free uniforms and free replacements on an exchange basis, unless items are lost or stolen, damaged beyond repair due to employee negligence or “excessive weight fluctuations.”

The uniform allowance — $1,250 or $1,500, depending on the assignment — is supposed to be used for the maintenance and cleaning of uniforms.

In his audit, Ferguson compared “uniform issuances, exchanges and allowances” at the Chicago Fire Department to similar spending in New York City, Philadelphia, Toronto, Dallas, San Diego and Indianapolis.

The Chicago Fire Department issued fewer dress and work uniform items to new hires than most other cities and spent less per-employee than any other city surveyed.

But, that “comparative advantage is more than offset” by an annual uniform allowance that is among the most generous in the nation, Ferguson concluded.

“Purportedly provided to pay for the annual maintenance and cleaning of uniforms, the allowance is completely unmoored from any determination of actual need or use,” Ferguson wrote.

“In addition, CFD does not monitor or audit how [or for what] members spend their allowance once it’s disbursed. As a result, this substantial annual stipend, one of the most generous in the nation, more closely resembles an automatic cash bonus. It therefore merits rigorous scrutiny and reassessment in the context of the city’s 2017 bargaining round with Local 2. … The sizable uniform allowance given to CFD personnel represents an additional opportunity for improved budgetary transparency, accountability and savings.”

Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, could not be reached for comment.

In the audit, Ferguson examined 58,257 transactions valued at $1.7 million over a one-year period ending on June 30, 2015 and found that 99.9 percent of those transactions adhered to department policy and management practices.

But, he also found that $535,757 — or 10.5 percent — of commissary expenditures made in 2012 and 2013 “came from a grant source that was not included in the budget proposal or appropriation” for the vendor-run store.

The Chicago Fire Department said that was an “historical practice” that it intends to change in the future to provide more transparency.

Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago has also made other changes in response to the audit. They include prohibiting firefighters and paramedics from “procuring uniform items for other members and modifying the point during training at which candidate paramedics are measured for an receive uniform items to reduce spending on candidate for subsequently drop out.

In addition, the commissary vendor is now required to review past usage of individual members at the time of new transactions to reduce the risk of excessive purchases or exchanges.

Earlier this year, Ferguson concluded that the Fire Department could save at least $1.2 million a year and potentially millions more in overtime by hiring civilians to perform 34 administrative jobs that have nothing to do with firefighting or emergency medical service.

One of the positions targeted for civilianization was the job of “commissary liaison” charged with resolving “uniform exchange disputes between members and the outside vendor.” The job is currently filled by a Fire Department captain, the new audit states.

Firefighters’s are allowed to exchange equipment that is damaged in the line of duty, but not if it is damaged due to employee negligence. | Sun-Times file photo
Firefighters’s are allowed to exchange equipment that is damaged in the line of duty, but not if it is damaged due to employee negligence. | Sun-Times file photo