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Local Columnists

SALMAGUNDI: Hard to argue against a full investment in public safety

Perhaps the optimism was unfounded.

When the Streator City Council and International Association of Firefighters Local 56 members came to an agreement on a new contract in mid-April, there was widespread hope for a prolonged detente. Instead, strife has been restored without significant indications of a long-term truce.

In the months and years preceding the new contract, union leadership and City Hall were at odds over several issues related to staffing, duties and equipment. Arguably the lowest point came in late 2017 when then-City Manager Scot Wrighton accused firefighters of making “how they can gain personally” their top priority. Neither was it pleasant when disagreements spilled onto social media, drawing in family members, elected officials and city taxpayers, pushing tensions up to the edge of acceptability, if not boiling over.

The contract ratified not three months ago was only good until the end of the calendar year, making negotiations kind of like a Congressional election — as soon as the final ballots are counted the next campaign season begins — and so despite best wishes, another spat between management and labor can now be seen as inevitable.

When one firefighter went on injury leave in May 2018, and then retired in October, the city opted to leave the spot unfilled, taking the number of full-time firefighters from 15 to 14, and filling the gaps with overtime pay — a total of 3,788 overtime hours from July 1, 2018, to May 5 of this year.

The union contract calls for 15 firefighters working in three five-person shifts, but never fewer than four firefighters on duty. The city, for now, prefers to just pay the overtime.

“We need to make sure we’re spending wisely,” Mayor Jimmie Lansford told The Times. “Staffing and personnel cost is our highest cost and right now it’s cheaper to provide overtime to cover shifts.”

In other words, leaving the 15th spot open means one less person to worry about for health insurance and pension purposes.

One interesting wrinkle is that the firefighter whose retirement left this gap is Joe Scarbeary, who now sits on the same City Council trying to solve fire department staffing. He remains committed to restoring the full roster, but is only one vote.

Another factor is precedent. The city employed the same tactic in 2010, leaving a spot vacant for roughly a year until, according to IAFF 56 President Kurt Snow, council members “looked at the overtime cost and realized they spent more than they would have if they just hired a 15th.”

Perhaps a similar tipping point will be reached on the back end of the decade. The union has National Fire Training Association standards in its corner, as well as a population base that’s historically been both deeply committed to organized labor as well as outwardly supportive of first responders.

The city has been able to realize efficiencies by hiring community service officers for the police department, but fire protection is a different challenge. Hiring a 15th firefighter seems the right thing to do, even if it might be more expensive up front. Pinching pennies is commendable, but cutting corners on public safety can have dramatic repercussions.

“We’re all happy with our salaries and the overtime money is great; we’re compensated well. But this is about the citizens,” Snow said. “It’s our safety and the safety of our citizens.”

In the court of public opinion, that argument will likely prevail.

THIS DAY IN HISTORY … After the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution was amended 17 times between 1795 and 1992, but arguably none had as much lasting impact as the 14th, adopted this day in 1868. It grants citizenship to anyone born in the United States, including former slaves, and its equal protection and due process clauses have been the basis for several landmark cases that resulted in broad expansion of federally guaranteed civil rights — though it was earlier used in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that helped establish the Jim Crow laws of codified racial segregation.

The 14th amendment was vital to decisions in Brown v. Board of Education, Loving v. Virginia, Roe v. Wade, Bush v. Gore and Obergfell v. Hodges, among countless others. Former Confederate states had to ratify the 14th before reclaiming Congressional representation. Broadly, the 14th Amendment has allowed Congress and the judicial system to consistently define what freedoms and protections are promised to all Americans regardless of which state they call home, placing it at the center of the vast majority of our modern political debates.

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