On June 17, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz eliminated three firefighter/paramedic positions in order to reserve funds for potential above-budget increases in the new firefighters’ contract. After what he termed “productive” negotiations earlier this year, the two sides have gone to arbitration.

In a statement to City Council members and the media, Mr. Bobkiewicz said he did this because the budget for the present year would not allow for expenditures for fire department employees beyond what was budgeted for union employees. Since the arbitrator’s award is as yet uncertain, he said he would use the money saved as a result of eliminating the three positions for unplanned adjustments in salaries and benefits.

Meanwhile, firefighters are protesting the elimination of the positions and asking residents to speak out at Monday’s City Council meeting.

Contracts for the firefighters, police and AFSCME were all in negotiations this year, Mr. Bobkiewicz said. Two of these – the police and AFSCME – were able to agree on terms that fit within the budget allocations. A protracted arbitration with the police (teamsters) union “was recently resolved with a three-year agreement going back to March 1, 2009, which met the allocated budget for [fiscal year] 2010/11 and provides for salary increases in [fiscal years]2011/12,” Mr. Bobkiewicz’s statement said.

“The City is now at the beginning of arbitration with the Fire Union.  It is unclear when that process will be completed,” the statement continued.

Mr. Bobkiewicz said he felt “the adjustments of salaries and benefits for firefighters” should be limited to the amounts “for our other employee groups.” The budget, he said, “does not have resources allocated in the Fire Department budget to provide Fire employees with salary and benefit adjustments greater than what has been settled with our other employee groups.”

Mr. Bobkiewicz’s statement continued that while he “respected  the collective bargaining process and the desire of the Fire Union and the City to have its hearing before an arbitrator on all unresolved components of a proposed contract: salary, benefits and other terms of an agreement, … it is my responsibility to manage the City Council’s adopted budget.” The City, Mr. Bobkiewicz said, must reserve funds in the event that the arbitration award is greater that what was budgeted by the City.

“I am unwilling to recommend to the City Council additional reductions in other departments in order to reserve funds for any ongoing unbudgeted salary or benefit adjustments that may be awarded to the Fire Union.  It is important to me that the overall impacts of citywide budget reductions be as fair and balanced as possible to our employees and all the important services they provide the residents of Evanston,” Mr. Bobkiewicz’s statement continued.

Mr. Bobkiewicz said the elimination of the positions “will effectively reduce our daily staffing of firefighters by one position, from 26 to 25.  Interim Fire Chief Greg Klaiber has worked with his management team to develop alternate deployment plans that will minimize the public service impact of these reductions.”

Yet some firefighters are protesting the elimination of the positions, saying that decreasing their ranks jeopardizes the safety of the community. On June 19, off-duty firefighters leafleted homes throughout the City saying “Stop the City from putting your life and property in danger.”

The leaflet said the current response time “to your home is under four minutes. Lay-offs will increase the response times to your home.” It urges residents to attend the June 21 City Council meeting (scheduled for 7 p.m. in City Council chambers) to speak out against the eliminations of the position.