June 16--Three years ago, the president of a large southwest suburban fire district made waves by publicly flogging two dozen of his own firefighters for each costing taxpayers more than $200,000 annually in pay and benefits.
But a Tribune investigation has found firefighters have continued to rack up similar figures at the Orland Fire Protection District, which covers roughly 75,000 residents across 33 square miles.
District Board President James Hickey blames the union contract with firefighters, which he inherited and recently renegotiated. He promised savings in the future but couldn't cite a figure.
"We're making good changes to the bottom line," Hickey said. "But it's hard to predict ahead of time."
When Hickey released to the media a list of firefighters and their salaries in 2011, he ridiculed their high pay: "Back in school, no one thinks that a firefighter is going to make $200,000 a year with pay and benefits."
At the time he was taking issue with 25 employees who were making more than $200,000 a year in pay, benefits and pension contributions. Last year, that list was down by two, to 23, topped by Fire Chief Ken Brucki's nearly $265,000, according to a review of compensation information requested by the Tribune.
District employees boosted their salaries with overtime pay of $1.18 million in 2013, down from $1.46 million in 2010. And pay for extra work not related to their typical duties jumped from the $230,000 in 2010 to $294,000 in 2013. Those costs were out of nearly $24 million in total compensation.
Shortly after Hickey made headlines targeting fire district spending in 2011, he announced a run for Congress as a Democratic candidate in the southwest suburban 11th District. He lost in the 2012 primary to U.S. Rep. Bill Foster but will be on the ballot again in November, seeking a seat on the Cook County Board.
In 2013, the fire district employed more than 170 full- and part-time staffers, with 117 firefighters. Its $29 million operating budget, the bulk of which is used for payroll, is bigger than any suburban Chicago fire department except Aurora and Joliet, both of which have about 200 firefighters.
Brucki said that's not the best comparison because a fire protection district's budget records all expenses, while some fire department costs might appear in a different section of a municipal budget. But Orland's budget is still nearly 50 percent larger than the next-biggest suburban fire protection district, Lisle-Woodridge, which has a $20.7 million budget and 127 employees.
Hickey says he has saved taxpayers $22.5 million since he became board president in 2011 by cutting waste, leasing rather than purchasing equipment and eliminating programs from the previous administration, though he said he didn't remember specific programs cut. He noted the total fire district budget shrank under his tenure, from $35 million in expenditures in 2009 and 2010 to $29 million in 2013.
Walter Rafacz, president of the Orland firefighters union, declined to comment, but other fire officials said it wasn't clear Orland Fire Protection District salaries were above the norm.
Of the 117 firefighters, lieutenants, engineers and battalion chiefs on the district's payroll last year, 100 were paid more than $100,000 before adding in benefits. In 2010, it was 86 of 114. Benefits, mostly health insurance and pension, add more than $60,000 to the total compensation of most.
"Orland's compensation is high, but what's the market? What's the cost of living?" said Greg Knoll, executive director of the Illinois Professional Firefighters Association.
Knoll, who sits on the Homewood Fire Department's pension board, said all Homewood employees above the firefighter rank earn more than $100,000 without overtime or benefits. Homewood's firefighters make $70,000 to $87,000, so it wouldn't take much overtime to climb above $100,000, Knoll said.
Jim Eggert, vice president of the Cook County Fire Chiefs Association and chief of the River Forest Fire Department, said Orland's numbers weren't surprising for a big district in a relatively well-off area. "If your ability to pay is greater, and the department gets paid more, you're expecting better service too."
Both Hickey and Brucki argued that while the district's firefighters are well-paid, they're also providing outstanding service.
"I believe there's a higher level of expectations here," Brucki said at a recent training day for new recruits. "The districts in our area all do a good job; it's just that much higher here."
Orland Park residents seem to agree. More than 9 in 10 rated the department favorably in a biannual survey conducted by the village.
"There's a lot of respect in my neck of the woods for that department," Knoll said. But he questioned the board's decision to release total compensation data, saying that while it's a fair way to look at how much employees cost the district, most wouldn't consider employer pension contributions and health insurance part of their take-home pay.
Hickey said he wasn't trying to criticize his firefighters or say they were overpaid. Instead, he wanted to point out high overtime and pension contributions, he said.
The data on 2013 pension contributions aren't directly comparable to the previously reported figures because the district changed the way it calculates pension costs after releasing the 2010 compensation data, said district finance director Kerry Sullivan. Pension costs are lower using the revised method.
When Hickey released compensation data in 2011, he criticized the overtime paid to cover shifts, but he also resisted hiring new firefighters, which could have reduced the need for overtime. With annual salary increases, benefits and pension costs accompanying new hires, "It's cheaper to pay overtime," Hickey said recently.
High minimum staffing levels are part of the reason the district has significant overtime costs, Brucki said. The district's contract requires 28 firefighters on every shift, and though they aim to have eight additional firefighters ready to work each shift in case someone calls in sick or takes a vacation day, reductions in staff can make it hard to keep up, Brucki said.
The district's top overtime earner last year was also its top-paid firefighter, whose $33,600 in overtime pay included $25,000 from volunteering for extra shifts when scheduled firefighters needed a replacement to meet minimum staffing requirements and $3,600 in overtime related to the district's dive squad, added to an $89,000 regular salary, for $197,000 total compensation.
Most overtime related to specialty teams includes payment for employees to receive training, some of which is reimbursable, Sullivan said.
Close behind was a lieutenant whose $225,000 total compensation included $29,600 in overtime, $16,000 of which was for extra fleet maintenance work and $13,000 for building maintenance.
This year could see a spike in overtime because the district expects 10 to 20 people to take advantage of retirement incentives that end in December, Brucki said. Not only might they need to rely on a smaller staff while training new hires, firefighters nearing retirement tend to use accrued sick days, meaning they could need more people to fill in, he said.
Hickey said the retirement incentives would be worthwhile because the district wants to replace some more experienced employees with cheaper new hires, particularly after negotiating a reduction in starting salaries in the latest contract.
He said he anticipated personnel costs "dropping dramatically" starting in 2015, though he did not have an estimate of how much the district expected to save.
Compensation data were added to the fire district's website in May after the Tribune requested the information. Hickey said he plans to continue posting budget information online.
"I believe an educated citizen is the best citizen," he said. "When citizens are given all the facts, they can see the people they've elected are doing the best job they can with their money."
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