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I-Team Report: A Buried Treasure

April 2, 2009 5:47:53 AM PDT
Nearly $80 million, hidden in the fine print of the city budget, is used for annual bonuses and clothing allowances to thousands of Chicago police and fire officers. We're talking between $4,000 and $5,000 a year in extra pay for all 18,000 Chicago police and fire officers. They say they're entitled to the money, some of which is intended to be spent on uniforms.

But amidst volatile contract negotiations, some city officials want the bonuses revoked. And that is one of the reasons police have organized a demonstration for Thursday morning.

No one disputes that police and firefighters deserve to be paid as much as the taxpayers can afford. But since 1980, rank-and-file officers have been paid hundreds of millions of dollars more than their publicly budgeted salaries.

"This was negotiated under Jane Byrne when she was mayor. She gave the police and fire that uniform allowance and duty availability. That is a huge amount of money we can save taxpayers every single day," said Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th Ward.

The extra pay - now totaling almost $80 million in the city budget - is intended to cover two things.

'Duty availability' means that police and fire officers will be available to report to work when needed. They receive nearly $3,000 each, per year, described on the police Web site as a "bonus."

But officers and their union count on it as a part of their pay because it is figured into their pension and taxed.

"It's a check that we get quarterly, which is to compensate us for having either to work nights, weekends, holidays and rotating days off, which we're all entitled to because we're all subject to being called up or deployed at any time like on election night," said Officer Maja Ramirez, Chicago Police.

"They are sworn officers, and I think under the job description they should be available if called anyway. So we are going to pay you duty availability to be available and then when we do call you we have to pay you overtime. I think that's a conflict," said Beale.

The second part of the extra pay is for a uniform allowance. Click here for a list of uniform and equipment expenditures prescribed for duty use.

For firefighters, it's $1,250 a year even though the department provides all clothing and firefighting gear. The allowance is intended for cleaning their pants and shirts or to buy replacements.

Police officers receive $1,800 a year and are required to purchase their initial uniform and gun and also to buy replacements as items wear out.

"I'm overdue for a new vest and for the women they cost $1,600 and the mens' are only $500," said Ramirez. "I've replaced my holster, my belts, my bullet cases. It all adds up."

"I utilize a great portion of it for my uniform, things that we need that are for the job," said Officer Tony Martinez, Chicago Police.

Starting pay for a police officer is $43,000 a year. It increases to almost $59,000 after a year and a half on the job. Firefighters make slightly more. Their bonus pay is on top of that.

All have been working on an expired contract since 2007. Because extra pay is among the hotly contested bargaining items, union leaders and city officials declined to be interviewed for this story.

But several sent written statements justify the duty availability fee as a long-time pay component that insures staffing in emergencies. And officials cited the need for clothing allowances to uphold department dress and equipment standards.

As a flyer for Thursday's police protest shows, rank and file have targeted Alderman Beale for trying to kill their bonuses.

"We have to look at the taxpayers that are really suffering right now. We can no longer cut any other city services. We are at bare bones right now," said Beale.

Beale has been pounded on police Web sites for accepting an aldermanic raise while trying to cut police and castigated on his own voicemail.

"We're just going to have to go along with it until things get better and I'm sure we're going to get what we rightfully deserve in the end," said Martinez.

The I-Team has been told by police and fire officers that these payments are common across the country. We checked New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston. Most pay uniform allowances that are significantly smaller than Chicago.

No one pays 'duty availability.' They do pay what is called 'shift differential' to compensate for overnight and weekend work. But in other cities that is paid per employee, not the entire work force.

Statement from the Chicago Fire Department

"The Fire department has a commissary which provides clothing, including shoes and gloves, therefore uniform firefighters of the Chicago Fire Department are not required to purchase any of the duty clothing This goes for the bunker gear as well as the regular utility clothing and, where issued, the class A uniform. Members may at their own discretion buy additional clothing to supplement their personal CFD wardrobe. The clothing maintenance payments are made so that firefighters can properly care for their clothing issued by the department. The clothing gets very dirty from fire fighting efforts and can contain blood and other body fluids as well as chemicals and other materials beyond normal "dirt." This may require professional laundry procedures to ensure the items are properly cleaned. The department requires that uniforms and utility clothing be clean and serviceable at all times."

"The duty availability payments are a result of the collective bargaining process that has been ongoing for many years. The payments have been made since the mid eighties when they were made part of the collective bargaining agreement. Members of the department may be called back to service at anytime if an emergency exists that requires augmentation of the current on duty complement."

- Larry Langford, Chicago Fire Department, Director of Media Affairs

Statement from the Mayor's Deputy Press Secretary

"Duty availability and the uniform allowance for both police and fire personnel are contractually obligated expenses included in the bargaining agreements between the City and the respective unions."

The City cannot unilaterally decide not to pay these expenses. Any change to this pay would have to be negotiated and agreed upon by the police and fire unions.

"As we negotiate with both unions on new contracts, all forms of compensation are on the table. We will work to find the most cost-effective way to properly outfit police and fire personnel. But we will not negotiate the particular elements of the agreements through the media."

- Jodi Kawada - Mayoral Deputy Press Secretary

Statement from Alderman Isaac S. Carothers

"Thank you for your interest in the Chicago City Council Police & Fire Committee (PAFC). As Chairman of the PAFC, I oversee this fourteen-member standing committee with specific legislaive oversight on citywide issues related to the Chicago Police and Fire Departments."

"Currently, the City of Chicago and the Chicago Police and Fire Departments are in contract negotiations with the police and fire unions on a variety of issues, and all forms of compensation will be on the table, including the topics of duty availability payments and uniform allowances, that will be the subject of your upcoming ABC - Channel 7 investigative news story on Wednesday, April 1, 2009. I was asked to appear on-air to discuss this issue, and have responded to this request via this written statement."

"These duty availability and uniform allowances are contained within the current police and fire collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) in force, under State Law (Illinois Public Labor Relations Act, 5ILCS 315), and it is common practice in Police and Fire departments around the country for compensation to take various forms, in addition to base salaries. Our research indicates that with the exception of Dallas, Texas ? many other major municipalities utilize supplemental compensation for their Police & Fire Departments."

"During this time, the City of Chicago will continue to offer high-quality and cost-effective police, fire and emergency services to the city's residents. However, another important consideration is the fact that the City of Chicago has a negotiating team working the on-going contract negotiations currently underway with the Chicago Police and Fire Departments, and therefore I feel that it is inappropriate for me to officially comment on camera, until the entire negotiation process has been completed."

-Alderman Isaac S. Carothers, Chairman City Council Police & Fire Committee

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