Cal Park removes fire chief
Cost-cutting move ousts chief of newly privatized department
Less than two months after outsourcing its fire department to Kurtz Paramedic Service, Calumet Park has ousted its full-time fire chief, the village’s mayor said.
Howard Fisher, who had served as chief since 2014, was let go earlier this month in what Mayor Ronald Denson saidwas primarily a cost-cutting move.
“I wanted a part-time (chief ),” he said. “Since Kurtz was going to have their own staff and everything, I didn’t see the need to be paying $80,000-$90,000 for a full-time fire chief when I was gonna also have to be paying for an administrative person that was going to be there administering all the paperwork of that.”
Denson said he’s hoping to find a replacement for Fisher— who made $82,126 last year — within the next fewweeks.
Once the new fire chief is appointed, he or she and an existing fire office clerk will be the department’s only public employees, at a combined cost of between $80,000 and $90,000 without benefits, he said. Kurtz employs the department’s 12 full-time firefighters, four of whom previously worked part-time for Calumet Park.
Nicless Malley, one such former village firefighter who now works
for Kurtz, will serve as Calumet Park’s acting chief until a permanent replacement is found, Denson said.
Themayor said he’s looking to fill the chief opening with someone who has prior experience running a fire department — possibly a retired chief — and expertise training and developing firefighters.
“We’re going to have a lot of training that needs to be in place,” he said.
Denson said he didn’t ask Fisher to accept a lowerpaying, part-time role because he didn’t think it would be fair to the former full-time chief, but also acknowledged there was “some conflict” between them, even though he said that was not the primary motivation for hismove.
The details of Fisher’s separation agreement are still being worked out, but Denson said he anticipates paying the former chief until Jan. 15, and compensating him for his approximately 40 accumulated sick days and two weeks of vacation. Fisher couldn’t be reached for comment.
The mayor said he doesn’t expect the transition froma full-time chief to a part-timer working about 30 hours a week will have any impact on the department’s operations.
“I see this as being the exact same way, except that the chief’s going to be parttime,” Denson said. “That person will be reporting to me and that person will respond for all the day-today activities of the fire department.”
Kurtz assumed control of Calumet Park’s fire department on Dec. 1, a fewweeks after the village board approved a separation agreement with its firefighters union and signed a five-year contract with the private company to provide fire suppression and ambulance services.
Calumet Park will pay Kurtz a maximum of $829,380 in the first year of the contract, with progressive increases each year up to a maximum of $947,392 in the final year of the deal, records show.
The price tag does not include the salary of the fire chief and fire office clerk, and costs for building and apparatus maintenance and utilities, but is still expected to produce a significant savings for cash-strapped Calumet Park, officials have said.
Village attorney Burt Odelson has saidhebelieves fire department privatization will be “thewave of the future” for financially challenged communities that are looking to cut costs.
“(Calumet Park’s fire department privatization) is going to cause a chain reaction in the south suburbs with the communities that just can’t afford to pay the high salaries, the overtime and the equipment,” he said inNovember.
Denson said Wednesday that he’d had discussions with officials from multiple south suburban towns about parlaying his deal withKurtz into sharedservices agreements for fire suppression and ambulance services in their communities.
“(Some towns) want me to completely take over their fire department,” he said. “If I wanted to do it today, I could sign them up today.”
Denson said he’s still evaluating whether such a shared services agreement with another municipality would make financial sense for Calumet Park, but that he expects to make a decision one way or another later this year.
The early reviews of Calumet Park’s newly privatized department have been “great,” according to Denson, but detractors — including former village firefighters— argue that the quality of service will inevitably decline under a private company.
Martin Rita, a former Calumet Park firefighter who served as president of its union before its dissolution late last year, said he believes residents need to attend board meetings and ask more questions about the transition in emergency services.
He also questioned the village’s explanation for outsourcing the department and said he felt lied to after learning that he and others had not actually been eligible for a pension since 2014, as he said they’d been led to believe.
“We were fired under false pretenses, (with officials) stating they couldn’t afford the IMRF pension obligation, when in fact, we weren’t even eligible for one after 2014,” Rita said.
Village officials have cited pension obligations, as well as workers’ compensation and health care costs, among the reasons why outsourcing the department was necessary.
Rita said he planned to seek legal counsel to better understand the implications of what he considers to have been a breach in the firefighters’ separation agreement with the village regarding pension eligibility.
Calumet Park Mayor Ronald Denson said there was “some conflict” between him and Fire Chief Howard Fisher.