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City Council ratifies firefighters contract

Rank-and-file firefighters and paramedics will get a 10% pay raise over four years, all but 2.5% retroactive. In exchange, the city pays $95 million in back pay but gets higher health care contributions, saving $10 million.

The shoulder patch on a Chicago Fire Department uniform.
A new contract for Chicago firefighters was approved Wednesday by the City Council.
Sun-Times file

Chicago firefighters will soon receive $95 million in back pay thanks to a four-year contract, approved by the City Council Wednesday, that dramatically increases health care contributions to generate $10 million in sorely-needed savings.

The détente between Mayor Lori Lightfoot and a Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 that gave her a crucial run-off endorsement may be short-lived.

Firefighters’ current contract expired in 2017, so the new four-year deal lasts only through June 30. And Budget Director Susie Park has warned that treasured union perks and staffing requirements costing taxpayers millions will be “back on the table” to help the city erase a 2021 budget shortfall Lightfoot now pegs at $1.25 billion.

The contract already has been ratified by a 76% vote. It includes a 10% raise with all but 2.5% retroactive.

In exchange, rank-and-file health care contributions rise 1.5 percentage points. For single coverage, firefighters and paramedics contributing 1.3% of salary will kick in 2.8%. Couples go from 2% of a member’s salary to 3.5%. For family coverage, firefighters and paramedics paying 2.5% will now contribute 4%.

The cap for health care contributions would rise from $90,000-a-year to $115,000.

For retirees 55 to 60 years old, health care contributions rise from 2 to 3 percent. Retirees over 60 now paying nothing will pay 1.5% of annuities.

The combination of a higher cap and increased contributions would generate $10 million in savings.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel had been close to a new firefighters contract that would have traded health insurance concessions for a reduction in daily “variances” from the minimum manning requirement that triggered the bitter 1980 firefighters strike.

That rule requires every piece of fire apparatus to be staffed by at least five employees.

But time ran out on Emanuel’s second term before a deal was done.

Lightfoot has talked internally about seeking some of those same concessions, but backed off in exchange for the $10 million savings.

The union won increases in vacation days, holiday and overtime pay and promotional concessions. Local 2 also won more divers and strict guarantees on distribution of personal protective equipment. The $50 penalty for failure to participate in the city’s wellness program is now waived.

Kristen Cabanban, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Budget and Management, said the $95 million in back pay was “built into” Lightfoot’s 2020 budget — before the stay-at-home shutdown triggered by the coronavirus blew an $800 million hole in that spending plan.

Retroactive paychecks will be in the mail for firefighters and paramedics after a “personnel audit of time worked,” she said.

New proposals introduced

Wednesday’s meeting was the first regularly-scheduled City Council meeting since late July. Not surprisingly, a flurry of legislation was introduced:

• Lightfoot proposed an ordinance that authorized the Chicago Department of Transportations to install, maintain and remove bollards she called “Vehicle Impact Protection Devices” on the public way.

After two rounds of looting that started downtown and spread to Chicago neighborhoods, the city has used snow plows, garbage trucks and Water Management and CDOT vehicles to protect commercial corridors. Bollards would presumably replace those vehicles, eliminating the need for costly overtime.

• Just when Lightfoot is trying to reduce vehicle impoundment, noise-weary downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) wants to empower police to seize the wheels of anyone caught driving a loud vehicle on the streets of Chicago “without an exhaust system or exhaust system component.”

• Lightfoot introduced an ordinance creating a permanent license category for low-speed, electric public passenger vehicles. Under the plan, three- or four-wheeled electric vehicles driven by city-licensed chauffeurs could be used to transport passengers on pre-arranged trips. Tuk Tuk Chicago already has a temporary “Emerging Business permit” to operate such a business.

• Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) followed through on a promise to introduce an ordinance requiring the deputy inspector general for public safety to publish a “user-friendly, publicly-accessible and searchable digital repository” of closed complaints against Chicago Police officers.

“I’m trying to find a way to comply with a court order and doing it through the inspector general’s office, where they already have a lot of c.r. [complaints registered] information and compilation of police data that’s independent from the administration,” Waguespack said.

• The mayor introduced an intergovernmental agreement with the Chicago Park District that calls for using $100,000 in corporate funds to conduct a study of Jackson Park, site of the Obama Presidential Center. The study will “facilitate completion of a mitigation measure” required by a federal review.