Metro-East News

East St. Louis lays off nine firefighters to offset forced payments to pension fund

One of the East St. Louis fire houses was closed by city leaders and nine firefighters were given notice of layoff letters on Tuesday.

Those layoffs are effective Oct. 31. Engine House No. 425, located at 1700 Central Ave. will close “temporarily” on Nov. 1, said East St. Louis City Manager Brooke Smith. The city’s other two engine houses will continue to operate as normal, she added.

“The city of East St. Louis has made the difficult decision to temporarily close one of its firehouses which will result in the layoffs of nine firefighters,” she said. “This is the direct result of the city’s state revenues being intercepted by the Illinois State Comptroller’s office and redirected to the public safety pensions.”

The city had fallen more than $2.2 million behind in contributions to the firefighter’s pension fund. The Fire Pension Board voted in September to initiate the “intercept process,” which allows Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza’s office to take money that would otherwise have been spent on things such as payroll, public safety and sanitation, and deposit it directly toward the under-funded retirement benefits.

Its Police Pension Board also has applied for a revenue intercept to recover a $1.79 million shortfall in its benefits fund.

Both Smith and Mayor Robert Eastern said they understood the boards’ actions, but warned the intercept would impact budgeting for city services.

In addition to the temporary closure of the fire house, the city has placed a freeze on hiring and may be faced with making additional cuts in other departments in the near future, Smith said.

“Unfortunately, with 100 percent of the city’s revenues being redirected to the police and fire pensions, we are faced with the difficult task of strategically reducing some services in order to meet our financial obligations for the next few months,” she said.

East St. Louis Fire Capt. Brandon Walls, president of Union Local 23, the firefighter’s union, said the announcement of the layoffs “caught us off guard,” pointing out that, going forward, there will be fewer active firefighters paying into the already under-funded pension fund.

Firefighters and emergency personnel at the scene of the fatal house fire Tuesday at 2141 Market Ave. in East St. Louis Steve Nagy

“We have been trying to sit down with with the city to negotiate the contract. We thought they would try to streamline things first. They tried to lay off in the past. You can’t layoff your way out,” Walls said.

Each of the firefighters being laid off are full-time veterans with at least eight years of experience with the city, Walls said. He said the layoffs will be stressful for many.

“Public safety should be first,” he said. “I would think the cuts should be done across the board. I expect everybody to take this.”

Walls said the fire department has “always negotiated with the city” and would have continued to do so if it meant preventing the loss of resources. City Hall turnover, he said, has made communication difficult.

It’s left firefighters “frustrated, nervous, worried.”

“We’ve talked to them for years, but never have been able to sit down and streamline things with the fire department because of the turn over rate,” Walls said. “It’s a different city there — different city manager, a different mayor. There’s always somebody different.

“We have been sacrificing, bending over backward for the safety of the community. We don’t know what else we can do, but try to work with the city.”

Walls said the East st. Louis Fire Department is one of the busiest fire departments in the metro-east. Layoffs can only add pressure and, he said, will negatively impact the department’s ISO (Insurance Services Office) rating, which affects home owner’s insurance premiums.

“I just don’t understand this,” he said.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has appointed a task force to investigate consolidating municipal police and fire pension funds across the state, which in total are funded at just 58%, according to Forbes.