North Riverside puts plan to privatize fire department on hold

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A controversial plan to privatize North Riverside’s fire department was put on hold Thursday while the village continues to negotiate with the firefighter’s union.

A vote on the issue had been expected at a special meeting Thursday night, according to Trustee H. Bob Demopoulos. And the board voted to strip $750,000 from the fire department’s budget next year — the same amount it expects to save if the board votes to privatize the department.

But Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. said a vote on privatization was not planned for the meeting. “Whoever told you [there was a vote] was wrong. We’re in negotiations,” he said.

“Support for our firefighters has made them a little scared,” Demopoulos said. He’s the lone opponent of the plan on the village board.

Privatized fire departments are rare in Illinois, where there is a longstanding tradition of unions.

Hermanek thinks others are waiting to see how the situation in North Riverside plays out before considering similar plans of their own.

Under his proposal, a no-bid $9 million contract would be awarded to Paramedic Services of Illinois, which already provides village ambulance service. Firefighters could join PSI and keep their base pay. But they would have to accept reduced benefits and trade their pensions for a 401(k) plan.

J. Dale Berry, the firefighters’ attorney, said he was open to a contract that saved the village the same amount as the proposed deal with PSO.

The debate over privatization burned hotly in the village of 6,700.

Village leaders facing a $1.9 million deficit say it is a matter of dollars and cents and there is no money to make the annual $750,000 pension payment for 16 firefighters.

Since 2008, they have lowballed or skipped police and fire pension payments, and the state threatened to garnish their sales tax revenue.

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“You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t,” Hermanek said. “If we would have funded the pension, we would have had to lay off people.”

But critics of Hermanek and the Voters Improvement Party, to which he and the majority of the council belong — and which has run the village for decades — say the plan was about politics. In 2012, firefighters backed his opponents in the Transparency and Accountability in Politics party, to which Demopoulos belongs.

While the village has pleaded poverty, police officers were recently given 2.5 percent raises. And records show many of the village’s 158 full-time, part-time and seasonal workers are friends and family of VIP party members.

PSI sued the TAP party for libel before the last election after Demopoulos, a TAP party leader, called the paramedics “sub-par” and “mediocre” on his website.

TAP had called for dumping PSI’s contract in favor of training current firefighters to do the job.

“It is rather obvious that PSI is acting as an agent for the current party in power in North Riverside, the VIP party,” Demopoulos’ attorney wrote in a written response to the lawsuit.

But on Tuesday, village attorney Burt Odelson said politics didn’t play a roles in plans for privatization.

“It’s all about the pensions and the high cost of overtime for a municipality that has almost no fires,” he said.

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