The Village of Oak Lawn officially denied a Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] request for proof of the Bury administration’s claim that hiring a firefighter would cost the Village $7.5 million.
For years, the Village has waged a battle against its firefighters. Village Manager Larry Deetjen has made it a goal to reduce staffing below contractually obligated levels. The struggle recently came to the fore when Trustee Robert Streit (District 3) penned a letter to the editor to various news outlets, pointing out the hypocrisy of Mayor Sandra Bury settling some lawsuits under the rationale of saving taxpayers money, while continuing to fight a losing battle against the firefighters.
At issue is a sum of money which the firefighters filed suit for, claiming that the Village improperly cut staffing on fire engines, below the contractually obligated minimum. The cut, firefighters say, is not only a safety hazard, but it also was a cut in pay, as it reduced the number of firefighters working shifts contractually obligated to the local firefighters’ union.
The Village Manager has also reduced staffing overall for the Fire Department, forcing millions of dollars in overtime. The rationale is that it is cheaper to pay $3 million per year in overtime than it is to hire a new firefighter.
In a Chicago Tribune Daily Southtown article, published July 22nd, it is stated, “According to an analysis performed by Oak Lawn’s finance director, the gross lifetime cost of hiring a firefighter at age 22 who goes on to work for 30 years, retires and lives another 30 years post-retirement is approximately $7.5 million.”
Looking for the logic behind such numbers, the Oak Lawn Leaf submitted a FOIA request seeking “any village board minutes, videos, audio recordings, correspondence, emails, memos, voice mails, written analysis and calculations, or other documents supporting statement in Daily Southtown regarding $7.5 million cost per fireman.”
On August 2nd, the Leaf received the official response from the Village, stating “Your FOIA Request #2016-125 has been denied….” The reasoning given is that preliminary drafts and communications between a public body and an attorney or auditor are exempt from Freedom of Information.
If the analysis was performed by Oak Lawn’s Finance Director, as stated in the Southtown, then it would not be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. 5 ILCS 140/7 (f) specifies that the preliminary drafts and recommendations are exempt, “except when the record is publicly cited and identified by the head of the public body.” The analysis was cited by the head of the Finance Department of the Village of Oak Lawn. The $7.5 million figure has been cited by the Village Manager and Mayor Sandra Bury.
But, when asked for proof, the public is denied access to the information prepared for and by the government the taxpayers fund.
Interestingly, using the $7.5 million figure cited by Village officials, the cost of a firefighter actually comes out to about 50¢ per month per household. That’s less than 2¢ a day. Instead of paying $3 million in overtime, the Village could use that money to hire two dozen more firefighters, virtually eliminating overtime while safely and efficiently staffing its fire engines.
If you could hire 24 more firefighters to protect your home, without costing you anymore tax dollars, why wouldn’t you? It’s long been speculated that Deetjen’s ultimate goal, based on his statements, is to disband the Oak Lawn Fire Department altogether. In order to do so, he must bust the union. What better way to do that than to vilify the firefighters for costing the taxpayers money? Which sounds worse, $7.5 million for a firefighter’s lifetime or 2¢ a day?
Of course, that’s assuming the Village’s $7.5 million per firefighter figure is correct. And there is no proof of that.