Fire Chief’s Salary Beef Too Little, Too Late


Any reader of this blog knows that we were no fans of former Fire Chief Mike Zywanski – ever since the night he sat silently in a City Council meeting while then-mayor Dave Schmidt asked who from the City signed off on a set of ridiculous “ground rules” for contract negotiations between the City and the firefighters union that Zywanski not only signed off on but which he actually proposed.

So we were delighted when Chief Z retired and Jeff Sorensen took over as chief in 2014. And we’re still glad he’s the chief.

But we must confess to more than a little disappointment in reading his June 13, 2016 Agenda Cover Memorandum in which he claims to be “looking to the Council for some direction” in addressing what he claims to be “salary compression” – whereby “over half our lieutenants make almost as much as our battalion chiefs” while the former get better benefits and overtime.

Our initial disappointment arises from having a matter of this financial significance being brought up only a couple of months after the City budget was finalized. The budget process is when this discussion should have occurred, yet we recall no mention of “salary compression” in any of the Fire Dept. budget materials or during any of the discussions of the Fire Dept. budget.

So if there’s a good reason this wasn’t done as part of that process, than Chief Sorensen owes the Council and the taxpayers an explanation of what that reason might be. Because there’s nothing in his memo to suggest that this situation just sprung up overnight out of thin air.

We’re also disappointed in the gruel-thin analysis that the Chief presents in support of his conclusion that he and “all of our non-union personnel are paid far below the average for their rank and position as compared to our neighboring departments.”

Take the four MABAS salary surveys he attaches – for chief, deputy chief, captain and battalion chief – attached to his memorandum. While they show disparities in salaries, they omit key information that might provide insight into the raw salary data, such as: size of force; department budget; years on the job; years in that position; starting salary; number and amount of raises; and vacation/leave days.

In other words, these surveys appear to be apples to oranges comparisons, at best. Or maybe apples to watermelons.

We believe Chief Sorensen is better than this kind of propaganda would suggest. We also believe that he should, and can, do better than that.

But until he does, it’s up to the taxpayers’ representatives on the City Council to deny such requests while demanding a better and more-timely work product from the Chief and his senior staff.

And that “better” work product should start with some additional information that relates solely to our Fire Dept. personnel, irrespective of other communities’, that would permit our taxpayers to decide if our personnel are under-compensated, starting with a calculation of the annual pensions each of the affected personnel will be receiving; and at what age they will qualify for those pensions. Because the simple truth is that while a $130,000 salary is pretty darn good all by itself, a $97,500/year pension (75% of $130,000) with a 3% COLA is basically the gold standard – especially if one can start taking it at age 55 and can expect to pocket a whopping $3.2 million just for living to age 85.

That beats the $%@& out of Social Security and the vast majority of Park Ridge taxpayers’ 401(k)s! And those pensions and COLAs are GUARANTEED under the Illinois constitution, unlike the 401(k)s the rest of us have.

Let’s also not forget that dirty little secret rarely even whispered about when discussing firefighter pay: moonlighting income.

Thanks to the typical firefighter schedule of 24 hours on, 48 hours off, many/most firefighters moonlight at other jobs, often well-paying ones like construction. That’s all well and good, but it’s something most of our salaried taxpayers making even the $64,000 starting salary of a Park Ridge firefighter can’t pull off without the convenience of a 3-workdays-out-of-every-9-calendar-days schedule.

And while a 24-hour shift could conceivably be a significant challenge, we’d be willing to bet some decent cash that here in sleepy old Park Ridge, most of our firefighters average 6 to 8 hours of shut-eye out of the typical 24-hour shift. That’s not intended as a a criticism, just an observation.

The bottom line is that firefighters, like police, perform an essential and potentially life-risking service to our community. We owe them a debt of gratitude and fair compensation.

But that means looking at the entire compensation package, not just salaries – however further “compressed” they may have become thanks to the Chief and/or his deputies having just negotiated a 4-year contract providing 1.875% average annual raises, in addition to “step” increases based on seniority.

Which means looking long and hard at those gold standard pensions, and considering the golden opportunity for the moonlighting income that a 24-on, 48-off schedule makes possible.

In the end, however, the best test for determining how “fair” the compensation is might be to look and see how many of our firefighters – and police, and public works personnel, and teachers – flee their Park Ridge employment for similar jobs in those nearby communities held out as comparables.

Because over the past 28 years we have yet to hear the whoosh of multiple departures.

To read or post comments, click on title.