Wearing two helmets
He now has two jobs.
He will wear two hats…well…make that two helmets.
Will that also mean two times as many headaches? Time will tell.
For now, new Chicago Ridge Fire Chief George Sheets is getting his feet wet as he takes over a job in the middle of a firestorm. He will lead a department that his new boss – Mayor Chuck Tokar – admits is in a financial “quandary’’ and needs “professional advice’’ for some of its next steps.
Sheets will lead the department with the assistance of three lieutenants rather than one, the village board decided Tuesday night after it approved his hiring, 3-2.
The board ratified an intergovernmental agreement with Oak Lawn that calls on Sheets to head the department through 2016. But a vote to amend the budget and eliminate two of department’s three lieutenant positions died for lack of a second.
Sheets has been the Oak Lawn fire chief since 2009 and now is the boss of two area fire departments.
He comes comes to Chicago Ridge amidst a dispute between firefighters and village officials over the department’s future, which heightened two weeks ago when Fire Chief Robert Muszynski submitted his resignation.
There was talk of eliminating two lieutenant positions and that was strongly opposed by the union that represents Chicago Ridge firefighters. The board decision to keep three likely helped smooth things a little.
Union President Chris Schmelzer said Tuesday that the department is willing to give Sheets a chance “and see what he’s all about.”
But the proposed absence of two lieutenants would have meant that “two thirds of the department (would not) have a leader,” Schmelzer said.
In the past, the department had one lieutenant lead each of the three shifts, Schmelzer said. Two lieutenants retired, leaving the positions open, he said.
The agreement to bring Sheets aboard was approved by a 3-2 margin with trustees Sally Durkin and Daniel Badon dissenting.
Durkin said she opposed the agreement because “it was done without board input.” She emphasized that her decision had nothing to do with Sheets.
Rather, she said, Mayor Tokar was asked to present to the board a variety of options to solve the fire department’s financial predicament. Instead, Sheets was presented as the sole option.
“We were asked for input after the fact,” Durkin said.
Sheets said that examining the Chicago Ridge Fire Department is his first step toward improved services and cost efficiencies.
“I’ve got to evaluate the department and see what we’re going to do,” Sheets said after Tuesday’s meeting.
He said he would need to closely look at the fire union’s contract and meet with firefighters to understand their concerns. The village and the fire department currently are in negotiations for a new contract.
“I do understand their anxieties,” Sheets said.
The Oak Lawn Village Board last week unanimously approved the agreement, which calls on Sheets to head up Chicago Ridge’s department for two more years.
The agreement does not include consolidating the departments, and Tokar repeatedly has said that he has no intentions to disband the fire department.
Sheets comes two weeks after Muszynski resigned and Tokar confirmed that he asked for Muszynski to step down.
Muszynski, who took over as chief in early 2011, supported the hiring of an additional seven or eight firefighters/paramedics who would be based at fire station at 107th Street and Lombard Avenue, Tokar said.
That station currently is used for training and to store equipment, the mayor said.
However, some residents have asked the village to consider having a second ambulance and possibility a fire truck at the Lombard Avenue station, which would reduce the response time to a large number of homes in the village.
The village’s other fire station is located in the industrial park and is not located near much of the village’s residential area.
But Tokar said the village cannot absorb the costs of staffing a second station.
He said Tuesday that the village needs “professional advice” regarding the future of the fire department.
“We need to figure out what our options are,” Tokar said. “We have to be concerned about cost efficiencies.”
The village’s fire pension levy stands at $627,000 and “it’s escalating every year,” Tokar said. At the same time, the village is realizing a drop is annual sales tax revenue, he said.
“We’re in a quandary,” Tokar said.