Durbin delivers good news for firefighters

By:  Dan Moran
Lake County News-Sun

Though labor and budgetary issues remain to be settled in coming weeks, city officials joined U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin on Wednesday to tout a federal grant that helped stave off layoffs from the ranks of Waukegan firefighters.

“It’s been a difficult year for the city, and everybody here is just relieved we could maintain our staffing levels. Thanks again, senator,” said Mark Kolar, secretary of the International Association of Firefighters Local 473, during a gathering at Waukegan Fire Department Station 1 on Belvidere Street.

IAFF and city officials announced last month that contract talks aimed at preventing 13 scheduled layoffs had resulted in an agreement that, among other components, waived scheduled salary increases and accepted a $1.2 million employee-retention grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant is credited with providing specific funding to pay five current firefighters for the next two years, four of which were slated to be laid off. One of those employees, firefighter Rene Diaz, spoke about the shock of receiving a layoff notice prior to the agreement being reached.

“It was probably one of the most devastating days of my life,” Diaz said. “I was born and raised in Waukegan. I’ve lived here all my life, and all I ever wanted to do was make a difference. (So) I was really excited, really happy, that I got this chance to stay.”

“This was the toughest situation you’ll ever have to do — hiring someone only to have to lay them off,” said Fire Chief Dan Young, thanking not only Durbin and city officials, but also IAFF members for making “concessions to help us maintain staff.”

Durbin, who noted that the funding was channeled through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said “a fire department can have the newest fire trucks and the best equipment, but without the dedicated firefighters who are ready to put their lives on the line, a community is not truly safe.”

The city’s agreement with the IAFF reportedly will be on the agenda for passage by the City Council on Monday, another in a series of concession deals that target a budget deficit that started at around $8.7 million.

At the May 13 council meeting, aldermen approved deals with Teamsters Local 700, which represents police lieutenants, and with the Metropolitan Alliance of Police Local 285, which represents police sergeants.

Following a visit with Democrat Durbin that included a luncheon with civic and business leaders at Big Ed’s Bar & Grill on Genesee Street, Mayor Robert Sabonjian said labor peace has yet to be struck with two other employee unions — the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents public works employees, and the Police Benevolent Labor Committee (PBLC) Unit 42, which represents patrol officers.

According to Sabonjan, the council’s labor-relations committee reached a tentative agreement with AFSCME, but membership did not ratify the deal. He added that “we’re analyzing what our options are, and I’m hoping AFSCME will take another look at it.”

As for the PBLC, Sabonjian said there’s “nothing going on what that right now. It’s quiet for the moment.” Eight patrol officers were laid off on May 14 after the two sides failed to come to an agreement.