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Judge rules city violated contract with firefighters union

MATTOON, Ill. (WCIA) -- Firefighters are breathing a sigh of relief after a nearly year-long struggle.

The Mattoon Fire Department will have to hire a handful of new firefighters. It's after a judge ruled that the city violated their contract last year.

The fire department is supposed to have more than 30 firefighters, but right now they're at 24.

The city says this is all because of money problems, and they plans to present a budget that's not balanced for this year at their council meeting tomorrow night.

Officials say they've been trying to cut back on city staff to close the deficit, but firefighters say enough is enough for cutting down their employees.

As firefighters have left the Mattoon Fire Department, there's nobody new to fill their shoes. After a judge's ruling, that will change.

"We knew we had a really good chance, our contract is extremely cut and dry with the language."

Mattoon Fire Department Engineer Bart Owen tells us the judge said it best; the city is in clear violation of their contract.

"It says 'shall have 30 employees' and the day it dropped below that, we said 'hey you need to keep it at that.'"

For the past year, Mattoon firefighters have been at work with less help.

City Administrator Kyle Gill says it's because the city is spending too much on staff.

"78 to 80 percent of our expenditures is personnel costs, for pensions, health insurance, wages, so that number has been climbing every year."

He says the ruling didn't come as a surprise.

"We can't continue down the road we're on, we've got to make changes, and the biggest one is going to be in personnel."

Gill says the department was always at their minimum eight firefighters on duty, but the fire department had to work extra to make up for the empty slots. 

Overtime jumped from 1,400 hours two years ago to 5,500 hours this fiscal year.

Even then, Gill says the city was spending less than having all 30 firefighters with fewer overtime.

Firefighters like Owen say the extra work takes a toll.

"There were guys with over 600 hours of overtime for the year."

Owen says it's added stress -- stress that he believes will be relieved when the department is back to full staff.

They're in contract negotiations at the end of this month. Gill says they might end up with less than 30 firefighters in that contract - but it doesn't seem like the fire department will let that be an option on the table.

Mattoon city leaders are also expecting a ruling soon on whether or not the fire department will keep their ambulance service. It's after the city council voted last year to get rid of it.


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