A View From the Cheap Seats

September 3, 2009

Giving Away the Farm

Filed under: Illinois,Politics — trzupek @ 12:49 pm

DanishSwedishFarm DogSigurdAndTjalfeEXAMINER PUBLICATIONS – JULY 15, 2009

By Rich Trzupek

Village and city managers, along with staff finance officers, throughout the state have a problem. They have a big problem. And, while they are all sure that something needs to be done, there isn’t a damn thing they can do about it. Since they can’t do a damn thing about it, you, me and just about every other taxpayer is going to feel the pinch where it hurts the most these days: in our pocketbooks. Count on it.

Blame Springfield, not that this is any surprise. When it comes to financial mismanagement and lack of foresight, the Illinois General Assembly (official motto: “At least we’re not as screwed up as California!”) has been a model of consistency – unfortunately for us. If there is a decision to be made, state legislators will inevitably make the stupidest, most expensive decision possible.

What has municipal managers in a frenzy, and will soon see municipalities reaching deeper into our pocketbooks, is the skyrocketing costs of keeping Illinois firefighters happy.

Not that I’m blaming the firefighters. Nor am I blaming their union. Every employee tries to get the most they can for an honest day’s work. If you can get it, take it – and why not?

The fault for this disastrous state of affairs falls squarely on the shoulders of our state legislators, who have been no more able to say no to firefighter demands than Paris Hilton is able to turn down the studly celebrity of the week.

Going back to 1999, eighteen significant pieces of legislation have been passed through the Illinois General Assembly that directly benefit the rank and file of the firefighter’s union and that directly or indirectly have forced municipalities to expend more and more cash. As far as unfunded mandates go, this has been a tsunami.

Shall we consider a few of the highlights, or perhaps, more correctly, lowlights? Lets.

– Public Act 91-0466: The amount of time that a firefighter needs to put in to receive a pension (75 per cent of his salary) was reduced from thirty-five years to thirty years. Payrolls jumped to accommodate the new requirement.

– Public Act 93-0689: The survivor pension benefit was increased from fifty-four per cent to one hundred per cent for the surviving spouse, when a firefighter dies. Municipalities (and fire protection districts) picked up a substantial portion of the cost, sending payrolls skyrocketing once more.

– Public Act 94-0316: Firefighters were given the right to serve as an elected official on the board of the municipality in which they serve. This blatant conflict of interest, unprecedented for any other municipal employee, served to tilt the playing field whenever firefighters are elected to a municipal board.

– Public Act 94-0317: Firefighters were given the majority vote on pension boards. Two firefighters, one retired firefighter and two appointees chosen by the municipality now make up the pension board. This gave firefighters the right to make decisions regarding retirements and disabilities, as determined by firefighters, for firefighters.

– Public Act 95-0316: The Workers’ Compensation Act was expanded, such that a wide variety of ailments that might affect a firefighter – such as lung and respiratory diseases, heart conditions, hypertension, hernia, hearing loss and cancer – were assumed to have been caused by their time on duty. Net effect: many more firefighters are eligible for workman’s compensation, whether or not their condition is really related to their job.

– Public Act 95-0681: Three doctors no longer have to agree before a firefighter is eligible for disability benefits. One doctor is all that is required, and it’s not really that hard to find one doctor to agree to anything.

The net effect of all of this meddling by Springfield (and we’ve only skimmed the surface here) is to make it more and more expensive to run a fire department in the State of Illinois. With the economy in the toilet, revenues are down everywhere. Yet, there’s no avoiding what must be done to pay firefighters for increased benefits and disabilities. The Generous Assembly does not leave municipalities any choice in the matter.

So do not be surprised, dear reader, when a tax increase comes to a municipality near you, at the very time that you can least afford it. Don’t blame your town. Don’t even blame the firefighters. Blame the idiots in Springfield.

For they knew, or they should have known. The agencies that lobby for our towns, like the Northwest Municipal Conference and the Illinois Municipal League, told them over and over what was going to happen. They begged legislators to look at the numbers, and to somehow develop a backbone.

But, to actually turn down a request by the firefighter’s union? Perish the thought! That would lead to bad publicity, and possibly endanger one’s chances for re-election. If you’re against something that the firefighter’s union proposes, you must be in favor or burning babies. Thus, our esteemed representatives and senators smiled and – metaphorically speaking anyway – asked the most important question that any politician can ask: “how much do you need?”

Thanks guys. Thanks for standing up for your constituents. But here’s a little suggestion: the next time you’re asked to give away the farm, take a moment to consider that someone might be living there.

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