Washington Park hires $40K consultant, $25K planner; lays off $10-an-hour firefighters

News-DemocratJuly 3, 2013 

— Village leaders addressed Washington Park's financial problems Tuesday by laying off members of the fire and street departments.

Seven paid firefighters were laid off; only the interim fire chief was retained. The village will rely on volunteers to handle calls.

The Village Board laid off two part-time and one independent contractor of the six employees in the street department

The firefighters questioned the ability of the department to function without the structure and organization they provide. They said they plan to work through the July Fourth holiday, when fireworks typically generate about 10 fire calls in the village.

Washington Park is $7 million in the red. The paid firefighters were earning $10 an hour.

The board, on May 7, agreed to pay Ray Coleman $40,000 to be a consultant. This angered some residents and employees who had not been paid for the last two weeks.

Coleman, according to the contract, is to evaluate government operations, including office structure, financial management, service delivery and personnel. And under the direction of the board, Coleman is to represent the village of Washington Park as its liaison with other entities that do business with the village.

The contract calls for Coleman to receive $3,333 a month and the one-year contract says Coleman and the village agree to renegotiate his monthly recurring fees and terms of the contract as money becomes available.

The village also hired Earl McDowell Jr. as its urban planner, without going out for bids, for $25,000. McDowell is set to earn $30 an hour and the village paid him a $1,000 retainer. He is the current president of the Lessie Bates Neighborhood House board.

Mayor Ann Rodgers and the board went into closed session for an hour and 10 minutes to discuss the layoffs. When they emerged, they voted 4-2 for the layoffs.

Trustees Darron Suggs, Willie "Big Mac" McIntosh, Yolonda Clark, James Mackens and Rodgers voted yes, while Trustees Ferris Williams and Carleen Tucker were the two dissenting votes.

Resident Harry Hollingsworth said laying off the fire and street department workers was not the way to dissolve the village's budget woes. "What are the people supposed to do if their houses catch on fire? Your first choice should be the people of this city. It's pitiful."

He reminded Rodgers that she was part of the previous board and the village's woes should not be a surprise to her. Rodgers reminded Hollingsworth that his wife, Cynthia Stovall-Hollingsworth, was also a previous member of the board.

Hollingsworth shot back: "The citizens who elected this board didn't expect you all to come in firing people. I know you have to make some hard decisions, but to come in and kill your grass roots, I don't understand."

Rodgers responded, "It's not our goal to lay off anyone, but when we go to the courthouse and they (the judge) tell me we have to pay the judgments and liens against the village before anyone gets paid, that's what we have to do."

Williams said he doesn't agree with laying off city workers while the village is agreeing to pay consultants. Williams, who opposed Rodgers in the recent election, said, "If me and my team had won, we were going to bring in three commissioners from the state. They would have brought finances to oversee us. They would have gotten us back on track and we would've been able to survive. Those little lay offs are not going to help us. We're $7 million in debt. We only had seven paid firemen. Two of the three who were laid off in public works were part-time and one was an independent contractor," Wlliams said.

"The biggest problem is our Police Department doesn't have enough manpower to generate money for the village of Washington Park," Williams said.

"Our backs are against the wall," Rodgers said

One resident, Ruth Anderson, said, "Don't just pick on the fire and street department. Cut across the board. Lay somebody off at city hall."

Someone in the crowd asked about paying employees with Motor Fuel Tax. Clark said that was not an option. She said "for the last 30 years, Motor Fuel Tax (money) has been mismanaged. We're under investigation for that. We have been told not to touch that money by (the state).

The board appointed Mark Norris, who was the assistant chief, to be interim chief. Suggs said Norris told the board members when they met with him that he could handle the challenge and would work out the details and schedule his volunteer workers.

Several firemen said the move was political. Several of them said they were upset that new people were being hired and getting paid lots more money than they were while they were being laid off and asked to volunteer. One firefighter, Andre Henderson, said, "They don't understand that the citizens of Washington Park will be in danger."

Another, Ronnie Harris, called the layoffs "a bunch of mess." He said the fire department has not been a volunteer department in the last 20 years.

One resident, Henry Newell, said residents' homeowner's insurance and car insurance rates will go up as a result of the volunteer fire department.

Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka has called for a criminal investigation into village finances. The village is also facing an investigation for misuse of state Motor Fuel Tax funds.

Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.

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