Oct. 01--EAST ST. LOUIS --Massive layoffs in the East St. Louis Fire Department were postponed Monday amid ongoing negotiations between firefighters and the city.
Firefighter Brian Gregory, a union representative and one of those who got a layoff letter, said the city had tendered an offer to the department and agreed to postpone laying off 19 firefighters for at least two weeks.
"As of now, we have an extension," Gregory said. "The city made us a proposal that we need to take back to our union body."
Gregory declined to discuss details of the proposal until he presents it to firefighters.
City officials could not be reached for comment.
However, before the negotiations meeting Monday, City Manager Deletra Hudson said she would ask the fire department to consider letting the city postpone repaying $382,259 it owes the department in back pay.
A court ordered the back pay after ruling the city improperly laid off firefighters in 2010.
"If they can make a concession on the back pay, I think we can avert all the layoffs," Hudson said. "One thing is for sure: We can't immediately pay the back pay and keep every firefighter working."
Officials had sent layoff notices earlier this month to 19 of the department's 54 employees. The move came after a federal grant ran out earlier this year.
Before Monday's midmorning negotiations began, Mayor Alvin Parks said the city had found enough wiggle room in the budget's general fund to reduce the total layoffs to 14.
Parks also noted that the city's fire chief is going to apply for a new federal grant.
"The bottom line is that we will have enough firefighters to keep the city safe, regardless," Parks said.
Hudson said the outlook for next year's budget was sufficiently bright that she expected that as many as eight firefighters would be rehired in January and would remain on the force "long term" after that.
The layoff delay led to the cancellation of a hearing scheduled for Monday afternoon in St. Clair County Circuit Court at which the firefighters union said it would seek a temporary injunction against the layoffs until an outside arbitrator could rule on the issue.
Gregory said the union planned to argue that the layoffs would have violated the city's contract with the union. That contract had required the city to have 58 firefighters, Gregory said.
Gregory claims the city has an extra $525,000 in the budget and about half of that could be used to avoid firefighter layoffs through the year's end.
"They haven't earmarked it for anything," he said.
City leaders have said that money is already spoken for, to cover back pay for employees.
The East St. Louis Financial Advisory Authority, a state oversight panel, proposes the city keep the firefighters on the job through the end of the year while negotiating with the union on other points, such as ways to reduce staff through attrition and the amount of raises.
The authority has broad powers to oversee spending in East St. Louis. The authority was created by the Illinois Legislature in 1990 when the city was approaching bankruptcy. It continues as a watchdog agency.
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