Cal Park re­moves fire chief

Cost-cut­ting move ousts chief of newly pri­va­tized depart­ment

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Zak Koeske

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.

AR­MANDO L. SANCHEZ/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE 2017

Calumet Park Mayor Ron­ald Den­son said there was “some con­flict” be­tween him and Fire Chief Howard Fisher.

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