June 27--As pensions continue to put the squeeze on communities statewide, the privatization of fire departments could be considered as a possible solution.
North Riverside -- a community of about 6,500 in the Chicago area -- is the latest to put forward the proposal. The community says it could save $700,000 annually by shifting control of the fire department over to a private company.
It's uncommon but not unheard of. The village of Lincolnwood and the Barrington Countryside Fire Protection District are both privatized. It's expected that more communities may consider this move as they run out of time to wait for action from the General Assembly.
For its part, North Riverside owes about $1.8 million to its police and fire pensions. Downstate, many communities are protected by volunteer fire departments, which do not have pension obligations with which to grapple.
In two communities that have full-time fire departments, Jacksonville and Beardstown mayors both say that they have not considered this idea, and without the dire financial situations other communities see, there's no plan to pursue it.
Having just received the city's audit report this week, Jacksonville Mayor Andy Ezard said the city is staying on top of its pension funds. For many years, the city has payed beyond its minimal obligation into the funds, but as the obligation grows, the city is "losing traction," Ezard said.
Despite the general concern, Ezard said he was pleased at how well the city is doing compared to others.
"If I felt we weren't doing our job and funding the pensions, I might look into privatization, but right now we're doing what we can and even more, so it's not an option," Ezard said.
The police and fire pensions in Beardstown are also fully funded, Mayor Steve Patterson said. He had not heard that some cities were considering private fire departments, but said pensions are not a primary concern -- possibly just for the moment.
"If it's something in the future, hopefully it would never happen, but anything can happen," Patterson said. "Fortunately, money-wise, we're fine and we haven't had to worry about it."
In North Riverside, the proposal would have the firefighters operate under a private paramedic company the village already works with -- also requiring that firefighters be licensed paramedics -- while the fire chief would remain a public position. Firefighters would have a 401k retirement plan, and the city would further save on other benefits such as overtime, liability insurance and workers compensation, according to The Associated Press.
The firefighter's union stands fully against being privatized, arguing that citizens would be put at risk because the city had not been financially responsible, the news cooperative reports.
Cody Bozarth can be reached at 217-245-6121, ext. 1223, or on Twitter @JCnews_Cody.
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