Public Watchdog.org

Fortunately, Mayor Schmidt Is No Gov. Quinn

10.05.11

Monday night (Oct. 3) Mayor Dave Schmidt vetoed the 3-year firefighters union contract that was approved by the City Council on September  19.  In his veto message, he criticized the new contract for only two reasons: the 3% increase in the contract’s third year, which he wants to subject to a re-opener (re-negotiation) if economic conditions warrant it; and the new no-layoff provision, which he wants to eliminate. 

We were disappointed that the City Council passed a contract containing those very significant flaws by a 6-0 vote (Seventh Ward Ald. Marty Maloney was absent) – especially when the minutes of that September 19, 2011 meeting show that only Alds. Dan Knight (5th) and Tom Bernick (6th), along with Schmidt, asked any meaningful questions about the contract’s terms during what passed for Council “debate.”  Across-the-board increases unrelated to improved performance and productivity are hallmarks of bad management, whether in the public or the private sector.

But the most important reason why the mayor’s veto should be sustained is the no-layoff provision.  And if you doubt just how important it is for the City to retain its unfettered right to lay off employees in order to manage expenditures, look no further than the editorial in yesterday’s (Oct. 4) Chicago Tribune, titled “Selling out Illinois.”

That editorial justifiably rips Illinois’ latest ethically-challenged governor, Pat Quinn, for selling out the state’s taxpayers one year ago by…wait for it…cutting a no-layoff deal for state employees.  Now he’s trying to back out of that deal because…wait for it…the state can’t afford all those employees.   The editorial also notes that, in exchange for that no-layoff promise, “the union made some minor cost concessions” – kind of like our firefighters union agreeing to no wage increase this year as the proverbial carrot for a 2% increase next year and the 3% increase the year after that.  

But unlike the governor, who cut his deal with the state’s largest employees union to gain its endorsement of his election bid, we don’t see any evidence of a similar quid pro quo sell-out by the City Council members who approved the firefighters deal.   It seems as if they just decided to give away across-the-board, non-merit based increases and a no-layoff guaranty because the City’s “negotiating team” and its labor attorney recommended it, or they think such raises and guaranties are what government is supposed to do.

Unfortunately, it’s looking more and more like the City’s “negotiating team” was the sell-out.  

As we understand it, that “team” was nominally headed by City Mgr. Jim Hock, although he purportedly delegated his primary responsibility to Fire Chief Mike Zywanski, Dep. Chief Jeff Sorensen, and one or more unidentified Battalion Chiefs (the “Fire Guys”).  Hock apparently was oblivious to the risks of letting the Fire Guys – long-time firefighters union members before accepting their promotions to “management” – run contract negotiations with their former “frat brothers.”    

We can only wonder if the Fire Guys showed Hock their fraternity’s secret handshake as part of the deal. 

What else but a sell-out would explain why the City got stuck with a set of negotiation “Ground Rules” requiring that all demands, offers and other such details of the negotiations be kept totally secret and not reported to the public.  And if that doesn’t sound kinky enough, consider that not only did the Fire Guys lack the legal authority to bind the City to those Ground Rules, but they did so without even telling the mayor or the Council.  And then they kept the Ground Rules secret for months afterwards. 

Accrording to the minutes of the May 2, 2011, Council meeting, “[t]he origination of the Ground Rules agreement remained questionable” to that point, in large part because both Hock and Chief Z, despite being present that night, apparently lacked whatever virtues it would have taken for them to stand up and tell the truth then and there – something Chief Z finally got around to doing at the May 16 meeting, when he belatedly admitted (according to that meeting’s minutes) to “presenting the ‘Ground Rules’ to the union” after checking “with a labor attorney and Human Resources” personnel whom he conveniently failed to identify. 

What makes things even more interesting is that, as also reported in the Sept. 19 Council minutes, the City’s bill for those secret negotiations is “approximately $40,000 thus far, non-inclusive of staff time.”  Could the “labor attorney” with whom Chief Z claims to have consulted also be the recipient of that astounding expense?  And could that attorney be Dina Kapernekas, even though we cannot find the minutes of the Council meeting at which her retention by the City for this purpose was approved? 

It should be noted that Schmidt’s latest veto is consistent with his previous veto of a 3% across-the-board increase for non-union City employees.  The Council’s vote on sustaining or over-riding that earlier veto was to have occurred at Monday night’s meeting, but it was postponed by the Council in order to give Hock and City staff a chance to prepare a comparative analysis of other municipalities’ salary structures.

Why wasn’t that kind of analysis prepared before Hock and staff recommended those 3% increases, and before the Council’s original vote that Schmidt vetoed?  Could it be because such comparisons would show that the City’s employees are already better paid than their counterparts in other communities?

We agree with the Tribune that Illinois taxpayers continue to be sold-out by Gov. Quinn.  And it looks to us like Park Ridge taxpayers are being sold-out by some of our City employees, with both this firefighters contract and the non-union raises serving as two of the most recent examples.

Will our elected officials do something about it, or will they just look the other way and rubber-stamp the results?

To read or make a comment, click on the title.

14 comments so far

i read the editorial yesterday. i didn’t vote for him but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure how who did..re: park ridge employees, can we just fire these dishonest, incompetent nitwits? let me guess, hock has a contract that forbids it? get rid of all of them. what’s it going to take for these clowns to get a grip on the situation and have the gonads to then act on it?

EDITOR’S NOTE: That’s the problem with secrecy in government – unless you’re sending Seal Team 6 into Pakistan to get bin Laden. It’s disappointing, however, to see high-ranking employees appear to be “going rogue” on things and then concealing them from the people’s elected representatives.

You and Mayor Schmidt just want to cut off our first responder firefighters at the knees and make them beg for a decent wage. Park Ridge is turning into Des Plaines.

EDITOR’S NOTE: As we understand it, the mayor wants to give the firefighters exactly what they bargained for this year and next, except for the no-layoff provision; and exactly what they bargained for for 2012-13, except that the 3% increase might be renegotiated. How many Park Ridge taxpayers have 3-year employment contracts, much less ones that provide for a total 5% of salary increase over the next two years?

And, as the mayor pointed out in his veto speech, the salary piece of the package has to be considered in the context of the firefighters also having health care benefits, as well as a defined benefit pension plan better/far better than almost all Park Ridge taxpayers, and which most firefighters can take beginning at around age 55.

If that’s what you consider cutting them off at the knees, we suspect that many residents would immediately become convinced that short is beautiful.

Actually the raises when you include the phony merit program are closer to 6-7% per year. The payment to the pension fund has also been over $40,000 per firefighter per year in recent years. Beg for a raise? what don’t I get? 8:11 must have the blog watch in the firehouse again.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We haven’t done the math, so your 6-7% figure is safe for now. But your characterization of part of those raises being pursuant to a “phony merit program” may be inaccurate, if only because we understand that they were intended to be longevity-based rather than truly merit-based. As for the total pension contribution per firefighter, we’ll have to look into it.

Aldermen:

Fact 1: Every one of you voted for the contract.

Fact 2: The Mayor’s veto message added nothing new – they never do. There is not a single thing he said that you all did not know prior to your vote. So the question is why would you change your vote??

Fact 3: Just becuase the Mayor and this blog feel a certain way does not mean that that represents the feelings of a majority of PR. There have been many issues on this town where the outrage was measurable. You could see it by the number of people in the gallery and the loud voices (for example the PADS debacle). Is that the case with this issue?? From my chair, the PR neighbors and friends that I have in PR would use a word that a poster above used (Godfrey I believe) and that word is reasonable.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We don’t claim that our view represents the views of “a majority of PR” – just as we assume you aren’t claiming that your and your neighbors’ and friends’ views do, either.

But if you want to get some objective measurable numbers, you can get them by putting the mayor’s veto of that contract on the March 20, 2012 ballot as an advisory referendum issue. That way, the Council could vote to sustain the veto; the firefighters could agree to accept the version the mayor says he would support, subject to the referendum vote; and the Council could approve that version, subject to the referendum vote. Then let the voters decide.

We’ve got a crisp new $1 bill that says the firefighters union won’t go near that kind of arrangement because they know a majority of the voters don’t think this new contract is “reasonable.”

I have no problem with a referendum although it is funny when you choose to bring that up and when you do not.

I am reminded of a response you gave to something I brought up on the flood study and areas they had overlooked. To paraphrase you essentially said that those areas overlooked better speak up because this was going to get done and the people had their opportunity. Guess what?? I agree!!

I also think it applies here. This contract has been all over the papers and was out there well before the vote. It has now been vetoed and there will be another vote as to over ride the veto. The Mayor mentioned it in the Spokesmen for god sake!!!! The Spokesmen…..you cannot do better than that!!! The people of PR have had every opportunity to let their alderman know their feelings on this contract.

Here is what really kills me. You yourself said that the maximum downside is 80K. Yet now you want to have a referendum to get the Mayors version??!?!?! Starting from your 80K, and considering the Mayor only wants a possible renegotiation for year 3, what exactly is his potential save??? Will it cover the cost of putting together the referendum???

EDITOR’S NOTE: We tend to bring up referendums any time somebody acts like they are speaking for the majority on some issue, especially when that issue can easily be turned into a reasonable referendum question. And we recall that nothing remotely close to the thousands who voted against a new police station in the April 2009 referendum ever showed up at the Council meetings when the new cop shop was discussed.

What “really kills” us is how some of you consider $80,000 as implicitly carrying the prefix “only.” Beyond that kind of profligate attitude, the no-layoff provision by itself could implicate many more thousands of dollars.

Finally, there is no “cost of putting together the referendum,” other than the administrative “cost” tied to the Council passing it and some bureaucrat at City Hall processing the paperwork with the Board of Elections. On a really slow day, you’re talking a couple hundred bucks to let the public vote.

FYI–There are no city or taxpayer funded post retirement health care benefits for retired Park Ridge firefighters. If they choose to stay with the city’s insurance provider, they pay ALL of the premiums out of their pockets.

EDITOR’S NOTE: That appears to be correct, although we aren’t aware of any assertion that the taxpayers funded firefighter post-retirement health care benefits.

Geno:

Let’s not let facts get in the way of a good discussion!!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Nice quip. Now, how about pointing out what “facts” have been mis-stated?

We have lived in Park Ridge for over 20 years and do not remember any mayor casting a veto until Mayor Schmidt. Each time he has done so it has been to reduce spending. I hope he keeps doing it until the rest of our officials learn their lesson and stop spending our money on things that are not absolutely necessary.

You posted above….”the salary piece of the package has to be considered in the context of the firefighters also having health care benefits, as well as a defined benefit pension plan better/far better than almost all Park Ridge taxpayers, and which most firefighters can take beginning at around age 55″.

The wording of this statement might lead one to believe that the firefighters have healthcare and pension benefits available at around age 55. Pension benefits yes, healthcare no.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Quiet day at the firehouse, Geno? Or are you genuinely confused by commas?

Just because you felt the need to make the faux-“correction” that “[t]here are no city or taxpayer funded post retirement health care benefits for retired Park Ridge firefighters” doesn’t mean that there was anything that needed correcting – as evidenced by the fact that reading those words the way you suggest would require the conclusion that firefighters’ don’t get health benefits at all until “around age 55.” And everybody knows that isn’t true.

I got my tax bill this week. It went up again as it has done every year since I moved to Park Ridge. When will the public employees realize that the private sector taxpayers can no longer afford automatic pay increases and defined benefit pensions for the public sector workers?

EDITOR’S NOTE: In fairness, the public employees have a right to ask for more money, benefits, etc. The problem isn’t their asking but the public officials’ giving it to them year after year after year.

Geno:

Thank you for sharing that information. I was not aware that firefighters were responsible for all premiums upon retirement. While some might say that that was not something that “needed correcting”, I would bet that most PR would think their tax dollars are paying for all of this. The truth does not seem to fit the overpaid public employee naritive.

Kind of like saying….” that provide for a total 5% of salary increase over the next two years…..” rather than even mentioning that they again agreed to a 0% raise for this year.

I enjoy reading your blog. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, including you. I simply wished to clarify a potentially misleading statement with facts.

EDITOR’S NOTE: As the saying goes: Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own set of facts. To the extent the statement could be considered “potentially misleading,” you have done your job.

What seems to continue to be lost on the firefighters is the economic and social value of being able to retire at age 55 (a min. 7 years earlier than those of us getting Social Security) with a guaranteed pension that you don’t have to manage yourself (like a 401(k) fund) at 80%? of your final salary?

4:07:

The politicians are playing you like a fiddle (and many others). That includes the R’s and the D’s.

Lost on the firefighters??? Give me a break!!! Spare them the lecture. The firefighters made a deal – plain and simple. Like you, they expect the body on the other side to live up to that deal.

The truth is that for MANY years many people chuckled at firefighters (police, teachers etc). We appreciated them when needed but the money did not matter. Why?? Because our 401K’s were going through the sky – yea us!!! Meanwhile they had the slow and steady pension fund – boring!!!

Now the tables have turned but your strategy seems to be to blame the firefighters. Well this is one of those occasions where I agree with PD. You blame the firefighters dor negotiation in good faith?? They do not have a gun to the pol’s heads. As an aside, do you understand that over the last several years they have agreed to pay freezes, no pay for holidays and furloughs and the new contract agrees to another pay freeze for this year??

Fact 1: Is it the firefighters (or other public employees) that played a shell game with pension funds?? They have been contributing their share every year.

Fact 2: You seem to be lamenting your 401K. Is it the firefighters who tanked your 401K. Oh well, I guess it is nice to have someone to blame.

P.S. By the way, the Market is up almost 3500 points over the last several years. Many of us have seen a very nice rebound in our investments and have been able to get into new ones on the cheap.

EDITOR’S NOTE: You’re right that the politicians have played almost everybody “like a fiddle” for years/decades – by keeping public sector “labor peace” through wages that were disconnected from market economic reality, and pension benefits that were excessive given their gross underfunding.

What “deal” has any governmental body failed to live up to so far? The fact that the taxpayers have finally awoken and are pressing the politicians for more realistic compensation and benefits for public employees does not jeopardize wages and benefits already accrued.

The truth is that for MANY years the firefighters, police, teachers etc. advertised themselves as doing what they do out of a sense of duty rather than merely for the paychecks and benefits – while at the same time successfully grabbing wages, pensions and benefits that, when annualized, exceeded that of many/most taxpayers. Meanwhile, most taxpayers remained fat, dumb and happy because the politicians weren’t talking the the media wasn’t paying attention.

Glad to see you recognize that we don’t “blame the firefighters” (or police, teachers, etc.) – as we once again state in today’s (10/11/11) post. But let’s not view these public employees as altruistic martyrs, because the recent furloughs and pay freezes come on the heels of year after year of “step,” “lane” and across-the-board raises unrelated to increased productivity or the City’s financial condition – including as recently as 2007-08 and 2008-09, when the police and firefighters got raises while the City posted over $4 million in operating deficits.

As to your “Fact 1,” the firefighters and other public employees aided and abetted the politicians’ “shell game with pension funds” by failing to insist – even though they were represented on all those pension boards – on proper funding, most likely because proper funding would have reduced the pool of money available for then-current wage and other benefit increases.

As to your “Fact 2,” the way we read 4:07’s comment is not to blame the firefighters for tanking his/her 401K but, instead, just to point out that the firefighters have guaranteed pensions that they don’t have to worry about managing themselves.

And as to your “P.S.”, no matter how much anybody’s 401(k) investments have rebounded, there’s scant evidence that they have rebounded to the multi-million dollar levels necessary to finance 25-35 years of pension benefits to which public sector contemporaries are entitled – and no guarantee that those investments won’t crater again, maybe even a couple of times, between now and when their owners are eligible to begin collecting benefits.



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