One Attorney Expects More Illinois Cities to Privatize Some Public Safety Services

One Attorney Expects More Illinois Cities to Privatize Some Public Safety Services

CALUMET PARK, Ill. (IRN) — A village of 8,000 people outside of Chicago has decided to outsource its fire department to save money, a move that the village’s attorney said other small municipalities will soon replicate.

Calumet Park taxpayers will save about $500,000 a year after ending its contract earlier this month with the Service Employees International Union that represented part-time firefighters. The village has instead signed a five-year deal with Kurtz Ambulance Service for fire suppression and ambulance services.

Kurtz provides various services to hospitals, nursing facilities, municipalities, fire protection districts and industrial facilities. It has positions in Will, Cook, Grundy, Kankakee, McHenry and Lake counties.

Attorney Burt Odelson represented Calumet Park and said the costs for public employees got too burdensome.

“The pension system, health care, workman’s comp costs, lawyers’ costs, grievances, it’s just the cost became prohibitive,” Odelson said.

Illinois Firefighters Association President John Swan, who represents volunteer firefighter operations around the state, said the Coal Valley volunteer fire district near the Quad Cities also recently contracted with Kurtz.

Swan said he expects to see more municipalities switch to private providers.

“With issues with the pensions and benefits, communities are starting to look at other areas to try and keep those costs [down],” Swan said.

Representing career firefighters, Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois President Pat Devaney raised concerns about giving such public safety services to a for-profit company. Devaney said he doesn’t expect a wave or privatization in Illinois. He also said he doesn’t think firefighter benefits are the problem.

“We do have outliers where there have been poor stewards, the local politician, and now they’re in a crisis and they’re trying to look for a scapegoat,” Devaney said.

Private companies can’t match the training and value that public operations provide, Devaney said. Swan said Kurtz has a good reputation.

Odelson predicts other small municipalities throughout Illinois will follow Calumet Park’s lead.

“A story to be continued,” Odelson said. “If you look at the pension funding throughout the state, you see that many of these communities are only 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent funded and that will catch up.”

Odelson said another factor that could push other municipalities to privatize services is a law that allows the state to intercept tax dollars for local governments that fall behind on payments to local pensions. The money would be directed to the pension boards instead.

Larger municipalities are unlikely to outsource, Odelson said.

“The [firefighter] pension is hurting bigger municipalities also,” Odelson said. “However, because of the strong lobby in Springfield by the firefighters union, I don’t see much changing in the bigger communities unless it comes to a point where the unfunded pensions become such a problem that what we’re doing in the small communities becomes a way of life in the bigger communities.”

Odelson said the Calumet Park deal requires Kurtz employees to be certified by the state just like a municipal fire department. He said they go through the same training and same certification.

Outside of the contract with the village, Odelson said Kurtz’s records are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.