HAMMOND | Debate over firefighters' seniority days began in the Hammond City Council chambers Monday, but discussion was tabled for a future meeting.
The council also agreed to commit $250,000 to fund a study on extending the South Shore commuter rail line.
An ordinance on seniority days, introduced by 6th District Councilman Homero Hinojosa, would restore days off earned by working for the Hammond Fire Department for more than 15 years.
Hinojosa said the city received about $1.9 million in savings from a number of items removed from the firefighters contract and restoring the seniority days would cost only about $344,000.
"These fireman work so hard, but then the city takes it away," Hinojosa said. "As a union man, I want to see these firefighters to be able to gain something, not have it taken away."
City Controller Robert Lendi said Hinojosa's numbers were inaccurate. Since the savings would help reduce the city's operating deficit of $33 million, restoring seniority days would only draw out the deficit problem, Lendi said.
At-Large Councilwoman Janet Venecz said it's unfortunate the cuts affect the firefirghters, but officials need to reduce the city's dependency on casino dollars to cover the operating budget.
"There may have been savings from the contract," Venecz said, "but that's not extra money."
After a heated debate, Hinojosa requested the issue be tabled so Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. and firefighters union President Ed Lomeli could be present before a vote.
Lomeli was not able to attend the meeting because a previously approved shift-trade was denied, Hinojosa said. McDermott was in Indianapolis.
The council also voted 6-3 to approve a resolution to use $250,000 to help cover the $3 million for the South Shore expansion environmental impact study.
Mark Kalwinski, D-1st, said it was a good investment to chip in for the federally required study, which could answer where the train will travel and how it will impact the community before more funds are dedicated.
At-large Councilman Bob Markovich and 3rd District Councilman Anthony Higgs questioned why the city should commit, since 12 other communities and Lake County have pledged more than $4 million in annual commitments. They, along with Hinojosa, voted against the resolution.
In other business, a proposed ordinance would require repossession agents to receive a business license to operate in Hammond and require them to notify the Police Department when taking a vehicle. City Attorney Kristina Kantar said the ordinance would prevent police from wasting time chasing after a car that is reported stolen but actually was repossessed.