East St. Louis laying off firefighters, blames $5.5 million deficit

EAST ST. LOUIS, IL — The city of East St. Louis announced Tuesday it would lay off nine firefighters at the end of the month and temporarily shut down a fire station.

East St. Louis City Manager Brooke Smith said in a letter to a firefighter that the city had to make “difficult decisions” amid a $5.5 million deficit in the city budget.

The firehouse slated for closing is at 1700 Central Avenue. It will be shut down Nov. 1, Smith said in a news release.

In the layoff notice, Smith cited the city’s handbook for firefighters, which says the city may “separate any employee” because of lack of funds. The affected firefighters were told to turn in their uniforms and other city belongings at the end of the month.

“Closing firehouses puts citizens at risk,” Lt. Brian Gregory of the fire department said. “Reduction of staff puts firefighters and citizens at risk. If I were a citizen in that neighborhood I’d definitely be concerned.” 

In a city of about 26,000 people in 14 square miles, the fire department has long been troubled by layoffs and budget deficits.

Following a 2013 ruling from the Illinois Labor Relations Board, the city was ordered to pay firefighters a total of $382,259.82 for lost wages, pension contributions, medical contributions and more.

The labor board found the city to have violated its contract by reducing the number of total staff and not offering the same wage increase as it did to the police bargaining unit.

East St. Louis announced in 2013 it would lay off about a third of the department, but a month later the city avoided cuts after coming to an agreement with the union.

“This is a very difficult decision that had to be made in order to sustain City operations for the next few months,” Smith’s statement said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, with 100% of the City’s state revenues being redirected to the police and fire pensions, we are faced with the difficult task of strategically reducing some services in order to continue to meet our financial obligations for the next few months.”

The firefighters’ union contract ended in 2015, and the union and city have not come to terms on a new one. However, the old agreement, which both the city and union still honor, says the city must maintain 58 firefighters.

A memorandum agreement passed in 2015 allowed the department to reduce staff by 25%, but that memorandum expired in 2016.

“Layoffs are not going to be financially beneficial to the city because either way they’ll have to pay the money back because of the contract,” said Gregory, who was one of 11 firefighters rehired from a layoff after the city received a federal grant in 2011.  “If you’re going to pay us you might as well have a firefighter on duty.”

From The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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