EAST CHICAGO — The debate over the discontinuation of overtime for police and firefighters continued on Thursday at the city's Common Council Public Safety Committee meeting.
Councilman Emiliano Perez, D-at-large, who serves as committee chairman, said it was to allow public safety personnel an opportunity to share with the council their experiences since Mayor Anthony Copeland instituted a freeze on hiring and overtime.
Copeland issued a letter to all city employees on Jan. 19 that said such measures were necessary since the city had to revert back to its 2017 budget, which was $4.4 million less than the proposed 2018 budget, due to the fact the budget was not approved by the council and signed by the mayor before the state's Nov. 1 deadline.
Officer Jose Rivera, vice president of East Chicago FOP Lodge 59, said there had previously been a minimum of eight officers per shift working the streets to cover the 10 areas into which the city is divided.
He said since overtime was eliminated, he has worked two weekends in a row in which only six officers covered the 10 areas.
He said it is not that the police are looking for more money.
"What we're asking for is the manpower," Rivera said.
He said the department is budgeted for 98 officers but currently has approximately 83. Perez said there is a city ordinance that calls for 76 firefighters, but there are now only 67.
"We don't think that with a $10 million surplus that this city is holding, that it's justified to hold back overtime," Perez said.
Councilwoman Gilda Orange, D-6th, thinks the council is overstepping its bounds.
"What I object to this whole situation here is that this council is trying to manage day-to-day operations for the police and fire," Orange said.
Councilman Robert Garcia, D-5th, did not agree with Orange.
"We're concerned for the safety of the residents," Garcia said.
Lupe Rodriguez, president of East Chicago Professional Firefighters Association Local #365, said while there is no ordinance that sets a required number of firefighters per shift, 16 used to be the minimum.
He said on two recent occasions that has fallen to 14 and 15 firefighters.
Fire Chief Anthony Serna and Police Chief Frank Smith both said they planned to move personnel around as needed to ensure public safety.
Copeland was not at the Public Safety Committee meeting but the day afterward called it a "dog and pony show" intended for the council to look good in front of the police and fire departments.
He said he has been meeting with the council regarding the $4.4 million difference between the 2017 and 2018 budgets and that the council knows he will be submitting an appropriation request to cover that gap at the next City Council meeting on Feb. 12.
"I cannot spend this money until they give it to me," Copeland said.
He said the roughly $4.4 million will come out of the city's $10 million surplus and will allow for overtime, new hirings and the 2 percent raises for police and fire that the council had approved.
Copeland said it also will allow for 3 percent raises and a $1,500 bonus he proposed for other city workers.