Extreme Makeover; Moline Illinois Edition

By Art Goodrich
After watching the Moline budget talks being covered on local TV, in the local papers and listening on local talk radio, I am convinced that fire departments will NEVER win another battle against manpower cuts, as long as they insist on using the "more people will die" strategy.

And it's not because it isn't true, but it's because it is no longer getting the attention of the majority of their cities' residents. In today's selfish society, people don't care, as long as THEY aren't the ones dying.

It's the ones USING the service that is driving up cost for the rest of us, some will say.

Did you know that there are people in Tennessee who won't pay a lousy 75 bucks a year for fire protection, but will complain to the national news outlets when they don't get FREE service if their domicile catches fire?

It's true.

I thought that the area firefighters, supporters and particularly the firefighter union did a fantastic job of getting the information out. They didn't go overboard with the "more will die" message, but they mentioned it. What struck me was that when many mentioned the additional risk it would put on the firefighters, there was a palpable indifference by some on the city council. It was as if they were sitting there believing that taking such risks was a part of a Moline firefighter's job description and it is...to a point. Cutting manpower and pushing the risk to those who remain is NOT acceptable risk and shame on the Moline city council if this is what they believe.

The city administrator wants the residents to believe that it is about the high cost of firefighter pensions. That's rubbish; something that they are willing to pay more for in regards to its removal.

"Special risk" pension plans were designed for two reasons: firefighters and cops. Benefits were enhanced to balance against a lower wage and it was thought at the time that people who rush into burning buildings and people who are shot at should receive compensation for the risks that they took to provide for the public's safety. To that, I say "AMEN".

The early retirement clauses were inserted, because of the many hazards bombarding public safety employees; both physical and mental.

So; what happened?

Well, from where I sit; the other unions representing non-public safety employees were lobbying the lawmakers in their states to include THEIR union members in the "special risk" plans, causing the pension payments to soar. It comes at a time when we are seeing "special risk" retirees going up and general pensioners' numbers decreasing. Again; this is my observation.

In addition; while the firefighters in my state were dutifully contributing their 9.5 percent into the pension plan, cities were deferring and delaying their share.

I swear; if the city "bosses"-i.e. city councils-ran businesses like they do their cities, they would have been sent packing before they even got their probationary periods served!

The role of government, first and foremost, is to provide for the public's safety. Everything after THAT should be on the table for debate.

As I look at my future retirement in the private sector, I wonder what is a fair retirement for public servants?

Look at Social Security. It has been said that public servants will not get Social Security, but I know of several firefighters who have "side jobs" or "side businesses" and unless it is a strictly cash basis, I would believe that they would be paying into Social Security.

And if they are paying into Social Security, then wouldn't seem likely that they could draw on it at some point? Or maybe, I am wrong.

In my case, when I become eligible for Social Security, it will be approximately at 20 percent of what I now make. But, if they keep raising the eligibility age, I might get ZERO percent, as I might be dead before I ever collect a dime.

My 401K might give me another couple hundred bucks a month, but then, there might be a rule by then, forcing a reduction in my Social Security or it will be taxed down to where I might have enough left to pay for a newspaper subscription.

Public pensions at 85 percent; it that too much and if so, then what IS fair? 80? 70? 50? I really don't know, because I have been raised to get what I can.

We need to keep in mind that the value of a pension in a union contract has been negotiated in a fair collective bargaining process.

Public safety employees did not hold a gun to city government's head nor did they hold communities hostage. They continued to answer the call to every incident in good times and bad.

And yet, in today's climate; firefighters are being blamed for budget shortfalls.

THAT isn't fair!

I don't know what is left to argue. When fire departments have proven their value to the quality of life in their communities; when they have been repeatedly hailed as heroes, you have to wonder why they, along with their communities are being fed this poison pill by city leaders, who find creative ways to waste millions of dollars in order to sacrifice the public's safety and again, I say what is more important than the public's safety?

In a calling that is steeped in grand history and tradition; firefighters will have to look towards non-traditional ways to preserve their jobs and the public's safety in their communities.

It should start NOW!

 The opinions and views expressed are those of the article's author, Art Goodrich, who also writes as ChiefReason. They do not reflect the opinions and views of www.fireengineering.com , Fire Engineering Magazine, PennWell Corporation or his dog, Chopper. This article is protected by federal copyright laws and cannot be re-produced in any form.