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Streator makes case against union

Streator City Manager Scot Wrighton (left) and firefighters' union president Kurt Snow (right)
Streator City Manager Scot Wrighton (left) and firefighters' union president Kurt Snow (right)

Streator's city administration says a conflict with the local firefighters union is about saving taxpayers money due to increasing employee costs.

Officials say the local firefighters union is spreading "inaccurate and misleading" information on social media and inciting negativity toward the city and its officials.

Over the weekend, City Manager Scot Wrighton released to The Times its "Report to Streator Taxpayers — Firefighter Costs," which he planned to post to the city's website in the coming week.

In it, the city makes an argument to taxpayers in its negotiations with the Streator chapter of the International Association of Firefighters.

In March 2016, the city started requiring firefighters to respond to most emergency medical service calls, assisting a private ambulance service, Advanced Medical Support, or AMT. The union asked for the city to bargain over that new job duty.

In the report, the city warned about the growing costs of fire department pensions, which reflects the situation with fire and police retirement funds statewide. Property taxes will increase if the city fails to curtail pension costs, the city warned.

The report also states the city has never made any disparaging remarks about the quality of firefighters' work.

"The city agrees that local firefighters care about the city they serve and are committed to providing professional public safety services to Streator citizens," the report said. "Statements to the contrary are offensive and divide the community rather than add to the debate about what is best for Streator and the state of Illinois."

The report listed the amount in pay each of the 15 union firefighters received in 2017 — from $48,813 to $95,628. The city said it proposed to leave the salary and benefits package in place, except with the request that those with family health coverage pay "a little more" for the higher cost of such coverage. That addressed a "significant fairness gap" between employees with families and those without, the report said.

Over the last half century, the report said, many things contributed to fewer fires nationally — sprinkler systems, fire-rated walls, fire-retardant and fire-resistant building materials, smoke alarms, and fire code and inspection regimes.

"With the number of actual fire calls decreasing to about one per day in many cities the size of Streator (including Streator), most local governments and fire unions worked together to realign and redefine the work day of the local firefighter," the report said. "But in Streator, the union demanded minimum staffing rules that added to staffing and overtime costs"

Throughout the country, the report said, the significant decrease in live fire calls has been offset by an increase in emergency medical assistance calls. Most fire unions, the city said, embraced this change because they kept firefighters "busy and relevant."

In Streator, the report said, "the union has asserted the city committed an unfair labor practice because they did not immediately offer the union more money when an advanced first aid service was extended (at the time of the hospital shutdown in early 2016)."

The report said this position and the union's "historic opposition to performing limited nuisance and safety inspections" caused the city to fear every new training session and safety inspection would result in demands for more money.

"The city does not want to reach a point where the city or the union demands more or less wages whenever some new task is added or subtracted," the report said. "In this instance, updated duties are within the fire and rescue mission and within regular shift hours. The city is not requiring firefighters to pave streets."

'More fires per capita'

Kurt Snow, president of the firefighters union, said it is true fires are down nationwide, but he said Streator is a different case.

"We have more fires per capita than most communities, especially in La Salle County," Snow said. "All of us work overtime because we have more fire calls than most other cities. A lot of this extra money was made by us getting up from the dinner table at home and going to respond to fires."

In 2017, the fire department handled 2,107 calls — 1,374 of which, or nearly two-thirds, were EMS calls firefighters now handle, Snow said. That leaves 733 calls for everything from building and grass fires to people stuck in an elevator, amounting to about two a day, Snow said, which he said differed with Wrighton's one-a-day number.

Snow also took exception to the argument the union historically resisted handling nuisance and safety inspections. He said the city wanted to assign those duties to firefighters about 15 years ago, but was unable to reach agreement with the union. The next time, he said, the two sides struck a deal, so the department handles the inspections.

"Historic opposition? As far as I'm concerned, they only asked us twice," Snow said.

Collective bargaining is conducted in closed session.

'Not just about money'

Snow disputed Wrighton's contention that every time the union wants to bargain over a change of duties that it means a request for more money.

"It's not just about money. It could mean two extra vacation days a year. The contract is 30 pages long. We don't need a dollar amount," he said.

As for the request to bargain over EMS, Snow said, "When we asked to bargain over that, the city didn't know we wanted more money. Neither did we. We didn't know exactly what we wanted at the beginning. We ultimately asked to be given more compensation."

Snow said the union would produce a detailed response to the city's statement soon, saying it takes time to fact check.

The city and union are expected to bring their issues to arbitration this year. No date has been set. The union's current contract expired last April.

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