CALUMET PARK, IL — In an “historic” move that could trigger a transformation in how small suburban municipalities deliver emergency services, Calumet Park has outsourced its fire department to a private contractor in an effort to cut costs, village attorney Burt Odelson said.
The board voted unanimously Nov. 8 to approve a separation agreement with its firefighters union and to enter into a five-year contract with Kurtz Ambulance Service to provide fire suppression and ambulance services to the village, he said.
“This will be the wave of the future,” said Odelson, who previously spearheaded a push to privatize fire services in North Riverside that was overturned by the Illinois Labor Relations Board.
He said he wasn’t aware of another municipality in Cook County that had contracted with a private company to provide fire suppression services, but believed others would soon follow Calumet Park’s lead.
“It’s going to cause a chain reaction in the south suburbs with the communities that just can’t afford to pay the high salaries, the overtime and the equipment,” said Odelson, noting that he was in discussions with three other south suburban communities about outsourcing their fire departments.
Kurtz, which will assume control of Calumet Park’s fire department on Dec. 1, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
As part of the arrangement, the company will supply 12 full-time firefighter/paramedics to staff Calumet Park’s department in four-person shifts, replacing the village’s 30-plus part-time firefighters, officials said. Four of the 12 will be current village firefighters who have signed on to work full-time for Kurtz, Odelson said.
The private force, he said, would provide Calumet Park with “the exact level of service” as the village has currently.
Calumet Park will pay Kurtz $825,000 in the first year of the contract, with progressive increases each year up to a maximum of $925,000 in the final year of the five-year deal, he said.
That price tag does not include the salary of the fire chief, who will remain a village employee, and costs for building and apparatus maintenance and utilities, he said.
Odelson said he expects the village, which appropriated nearly $1.5 million for its fire department budget in fiscal year 2019, to save at least a half-million dollars per year by contracting with Kurtz.
He said the village’s separation agreement with its unionized firefighters — which will pay them $1,000 per year for every year they’ve worked for Calumet Park — will cut into that savings in the first year of the contract.
Per the separation agreement, the union members will receive half of their severance on Nov. 30 and the other half in spring 2019, with a total village outlay of around $240,000, Odelson said.
Martin Rita, a 12-year member of the department who serves as union president, said the union had proposed various concessions but had been unable to reach an agreement to keep services in house.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” he said. “We tried to bargain to the best of our ability as a union, tried to come to some agreement with the village and we just couldn’t get to that bottom line. The private contractor is offering services for way too cheap.
“As a union we have to draw a line and say we’re also skilled labor,” Rita said. “We truly believe that at some point you can’t bargain away all the things that your predecessors fought for in the past.”
He said he was glad that four current Calumet Park firefighters would be sticking around to ease the transition for Kurtz, but that he still had concerns about the quality of service a private company could provide.
“There’s a lot that goes into this job,” Rita said, adding that he’d made clear to village officials that union members were willing to return if Kurtz didn’t work out.
“I think there will be a time in the future where they may have to come and ask for our services again,” he said. “And we’ll be there.”
Mayor Ronald Denson praised village firefighters and said he’d never questioned the quality of service they were providing, but insisted that privatizing the department was necessary given the village’s dire financial state.
“We have to make some changes if we’re going to survive,” he said, adding that money has been especially tight since Ultra Foods, the village’s only traditional grocery store, closed last year.
Another factor in his decision to privatize fire services, Denson said, was the recent realization that 18 part-time firefighters were pension eligible, and that the village could be on the hook for years of past pension payments.
That, in addition to growing workers’ compensation and health care benefits for the department’s part-time workers, convinced village officials it was necessary to make the move.
“It was just accelerating to the point that it was not going to save the village anything by keeping part-timers,” village administrator Mary Ryan said. “It would have been better served hiring a privatized firm to do it for much less and they carry the burden of all the insurances.”
Denson and Ryan were more conservative than Odelson in their estimates of the village’s potential savings from outsourcing, but said that even a couple hundred thousand dollars saved per year represented a “home run” for the village.
“In a poor village like this, $200,000 changes things. It makes a big difference,” Denson said. “It may not say much to Tinley Park or some other town, but $200,000 to Cal Park changes things, and makes us in a much stronger position that we can go out and…really do things for the community.”
Calumet Park officials said they eventually intend to expand their private fire and paramedic services beyond village boundaries in hopes of generating revenue for the community’s coffers.
If all goes as planned, Calumet Park expects to enter intergovernmental firefighting and EMS agreements with surrounding communities, much like the ones it already has to provide 911 dispatch services for a handful of neighbors through its emergency communications center — also operated by Kurtz.
“We’re going to be leaders again in having the communities join us for firefighting and paramedic services,” Odelson said. “We’re on the verge of a big change in the way fire services are delivered.”
Joe Richert, the secretary-treasurer for Service Employees International Union Local 73, which represented the Calumet Park firefighters union, said this was the first time he’d seen a private firm supplant a unionized department.
“We fought very hard, we fought for about two years to stop this from happening,” he said. But unlike full-time departments like North Riverside, where privatization efforts ran into legal hurdles, part-time departments lack the legal standing to stave off privatization efforts, he said.
Richert said he was “very concerned” about the possibility that a wave of part-time fire department privatizations could strip protections from workers and hoped to address the matter via legal means.
“We’re looking to work on legislation to stop this from happening,” he said. “It kind of caught us off guard and we’re going to try to remedy it through the legislative process.”
Pat Devaney, president of the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois, which represents 224 affiliate departments and more than 15,000 professional firefighters across the state, said the threat of fire department privatization in Illinois is nothing new, but that outside of North Riverside — where privatization attempts were stymied by the courts — he was not aware of another example of a municipality making good on its threat to outsource services.
Devaney, whose union only represents full-time departments and was not directly involved in Calumet Park’s case, said he didn’t believe a private firm could offer comparable service to a public department and expressed skepticism that the promised cost savings would be realized.
“Despite how this thing is marketed, not only do you get a lesser level of service, but it can also cost more for receiving it,” he said, adding, “It really gets down to the public policy discussion of, should we be making emergency services a for-profit business and at what expense?”
From The Chicago Tribune