Steve Metsch, SouthtownStar (Chicago, Illinois)
Despite a heated meeting that included several impassioned pleas from 9-1-1 dispatchers and their supporters, the Oak Lawn Village Board voted 4-2 Tuesday night to outsource emergency calls to a private company.
The vote was no surprise because the plan had the support of Mayor Sandra Bury and village manager Larry Deetjen.
It went as expected, with Bury’s supporters voting in favor of the plan to hire Leyden Township-based Norcomm Public Safety Communications. The two trustees who tend to oppose Bury, Bob Streit (3rd) and Carol Quinlan (5th), voted against privatization.
The decision did not sit well with Lori Gromala, 47, who has spent 20 years answering emergency calls in Oak Lawn. Like many of her fellow dispatchers, she’s angry and feels betrayed.
“We are frustrated because of the lack of truths being told by the village. We are all worried for our families. It’s a scary feeling to not know you have a job, the one you signed on for 20 years ago,” Gromala said.
“You were sold a package deal. You come in every day and you work holidays, you work 16-hour shifts, you talk to people when they are desperate for help and in 20 or 30 years you get a pension,” she said. “It’s like you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. It’s a tough job, and not everyone wants to do it.”
Deetjen said last week the village is expected to save about $1 million over two years by outsourcing the emergency calls. The 20 dispatchers can apply to Norcomm for their current jobs, and Deetjen said he believes most will be retained, albeit for lower pay.
But Gromala would rather collect her pension than do her old job for less money.
“I’d rather get a new (public service) job for less money and build on my pension,” she said. “Our pensions are secure. Oak Lawn is up to date. I’m not going to do this job for less money. It’s very stressful job.”
Ron Cicinelli, the attorney for the union representing the dispatchers, cautioned the village board Tuesday night from entering a deal with a private company, saying Oak Lawn “could be held hostage,” pointing to the city of Chicago’s Skyway deal that turned sour.
Cicinelli said he will soon file an unfair labor practices charge against Oak Lawn because the union’s contract with the village does not expire until Dec. 31, 2014.
One dispatcher, Julie Miller, was reduced to tears after the vote. Her husband, Dan, is an Oak Lawn police officer. She said she fears for his safety by not having dispatchers who are familiar with the village.
Oak Lawn’s 9-1-1 system also serves Bridgeview, Evergreen Park and Burbank and fire departments in Bedford Park and Central Stickney.
The union has made painful concessions, said Streit, who praised the dispatchers and received a standing ovation from the overflow crowd.
Longtime resident Tavey Wright said she’s used the 9-1-1 service several times.
“I’m grateful for a quality, experienced person (on the phone) who helped me through the crisis, who stayed on the line with me until help arrived,” said Wright, who urged village trustees to cut other expenses, such as Christmas lighting and flowers, before cutting jobs.
“Those are the things that have to go first, the things that don’t impact the health and safety of the citizens of Oak Lawn.”
Former Oak Lawn resident Tom Malloy said he has worked with Norcomm in Oak Brook, where he was a community services officer, and found its services lacking.
“They were not as qualified or as good as the dispatchers I worked with. You’re buying an inferior product,” he told trustees.
After the meeting, Streit said he expects the village to lose the unfair labor practices case.
“This may end up costing us a lot more money in the long run,” he said.
Trustee Terry Vorderer (4th), a former police officer, said this “could be the toughest vote of my political career” but added he had a responsibility to constituents to cut spending.
“I hoped the union and village could reach some kind of compromise,” he said. “I still hold hope we can reach some kind of financial agreement so this doesn’t have to happen. I’ve agonized over this vote.”
Vorderer said he visited Norcomm headquarters last week and was “impressed with what they did.” That prompted one man in the audience to say “baloney,” which caused Bury to threaten to clear the room.
As they left after the vote, several audience members shouted, “I hope you need 9-1-1 soon” at the trustees.
An overflow crowd of dispatchers and their supporters file out of the Oak Lawn Village Board meeting Tuesday after trustees, by a 4-2 vote, decided to privatize 9-1-1 call service.