North Shore Fire Department Union takes stand against healthcare cuts

Michael Meidenbauer
North Shore Fire Department firefighters and their families line the walk on the way into Glendale’s City Hall on Tuesday in protest of a proposed changes to their health insurance.
Published on: 9/10/2013

Listen to Local 1440 President Steve Tippel's passionate address to the NSFD Board of Directors:

North Shore Fire Department firefighters, their spouses and their children packed Glendale City Hall on Tuesday morning in a show of defiance to the department's board of directors, which is considering cutting health insurance to help fund retirement costs long-term.

As the board met to discuss its 2014 budget the firefighters and their families stood in watchful silence, before and after the meeting moving to line the walkways leading in and out of City Hall, daring board members to meet their eyes as they passed.

At their head was Local 1440 President Steve Tippel, who chastised the board for nearly 15 minutes for what he and the union describe as poor decision making and financial mismanagement — the result of which is the department balancing its budget on the backs of firefighters, he said.

"The people standing here took an oath to protect you, your families and the residents of the North Shore at the potential loss of their own health and ultimate sacrifice of their lives," Tippel said. "They believing putting themselves in harm's way to save someone they've never met is what you're supposed to do...and you're not able to give them reasonable or even affordable healthcare."

Healthcare conundrum

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Photo gallery: North Shore Fire Department Union takes stand against healthcare cuts

Prompting the firefighters' show of solidarity Tuesday was the board's recent decision to cut approximately $175,000 from its annual health insurance cost and divert the savings into a retirement benefit fund — one of several ways the board hopes to address approximately $30.4 million in unfunded retirement benefits over the next 30 years.

Though details of the resulting insurance plans won't be finalized until later this year, preliminary estimates show firefighters could be paying a $6,000 deductible on a single plan with an $8,000 max out of pocket, or an $8,000 deductible on a family plan with a $12,000 max out of pocket.

In comparison, NSFD firefighters paid $1,500 and $3,000 for single and family deductibles in 2012 without additional out of pocket expense; in 2013, firefighters are paying a $1,500 deductible with a $3,000 max out of pocket on a single plan or a $3,000 deductible with a $6,000 max out of pocket for a family plan. According to Tippel, the proposed increase would contribute to a roughly 20 percent reduction in overall salary and benefits in the last two years.

"You need to stop treating North Shore firefighters like private contractors and treat us like members of your communities," Tippel told the board. "...We deserve to be treated better."

Of the board members, only Brown Deer Village President Carl Krueger addressed the crowd of firefighters.

"For the most part, we do understand and appreciate all the employees of the North Shore Fire Department," Krueger said. "There's lot of discussion in regards to how things have to be done, and we're trying to move forward in the best interests of all the communities and all the firefighters. We've heard what you said and appreciate the day- to-day activities of the department."

To which Tippel responded: "Actions speak louder than words."

Speaking after the meeting, Fire Chief Robert Whitaker defended the actions of the board.

“There’s no one on the board who hasn’t said that it’s a significant change to their benefits,” said Whitaker. “They’re trying to balance the fact that they have to pay the bills. I’m assuming they’ve done their homework with the people who they represent, that they don’t want to have an open checkbook for the fire department.”

How can it be fixed?

Tippel said the union has gone along with a number of concessions on benefits over the years to save the department money, and has also come up with a few cost-saving measures of its own that the board rejected or failed to act on — most notably a plan presented in 2002 which would have consolidated health insurance for all North Shore police and public works departments.

"All the way back to 2002, we were trying to head these types of things off, knowing the long-term effect of that would be significant savings, were it done the right way," Tippel said.

He said the board has consistently underfunded the department through its funding formula, each year increasing the budget by less than the amount allowed by the agreement between the seven NSFD member communities.

Tippel describes the funding formula — itself a point of contention between NSFD member communities — as a "structural problem" which needs to be addressed if the department has any chance of being properly funded. He said board members either need to think of the department first before considering the impact of NSFD budget increases on their respective communities, or, more drastically, appealing to the state Legislature to make NSFD its own taxing authority.

Being able to set its own levy would create an unprecedented level of transparency, said Tippel, though it would be a hard sell to a Legislature trying to restrain tax increases at the local level.

"Is it a potential solution? Absolutely," Tippel said. "Is it a viable option in today's environment? I'm doubtful."

Whitaker said that the idea of making an NSFD taxing jurisdiction “wasn’t warmly received” when he brought it up with legislators earlier this year, and even if approved would be subject to the same deciding factor: taxpayer support. 

“It’s an argument that’s very simple, but when you put politics into it … are the taxpayers willing to pay the bill is what it comes down to,” said Whitaker, “and that comes down to the elected officials.”