Chicago Graduates Face Uncertain Future

Posted: 08-20-2008
Updated: 08-20-2008 09:36:18 AM

FRAN SPIELMAN, The Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun Times

Chicago's first firefighters entrance exam in more than a decade finally produced its first graduating class Tuesday at a time of great uncertainty: Police and fire layoffs are on the table to close a $420 million budget gap.

Last week, Mayor Daley's chief financial officer refused to rule out layoffs of sworn police officers and firefighters.

On Tuesday, Daley reacted testily when asked about police and fire layoffs.

"Everybody's jumping. I know you need a headline. . . . We are in a recession in the country. There's major problems in the economy. Let's not jump to headlines and scare people. We have to work this out. We know that. And we will be able to work this out in a professional way," Daley told reporters after presiding over a graduation ceremony for the 81 new firefighters at Navy Pier. "This is a tough time. . . . You just don't say, 'I'm gonna have a layoff.' These are human beings. They have families. You can't just dismiss that."

After showing off a $600,000 incident command vehicle bought with federal funds, Daley was asked whether Chicago's worst budget crisis in a generation can be solved without police and fire layoffs when 55.4 percent of all spending from the city's corporate fund goes to public safety.

"I'm not gonna answer that question. You need a headline. . . . I'm not gonna give you that," he said.

Newly appointed Fire Commissioner John Brooks refused to say whether his department could withstand layoffs of uniformed firefighters and paramedics. Graduates celebrating with their families didn't want to talk about it, either.

On Feb. 19, 81 rookies chosen randomly from nearly 17,000 applicants who passed the May 2006 firefighters entrance exam entered the fire academy to begin six months of training.

It was the first step toward replacing 1,000 veteran firefighters expected to retire over the next year after qualifying to receive maximum pension benefits. The average firefighter is 44. The new test had an age limit of 38.

It was Chicago's first firefighters entrance exam since the 1995 test that touched off a marathon legal battle.

When results for minorities were disappointing, the city established a cut-off score of 89 and hired randomly from the top 1,800 "well qualified" candidates.

In 2005, a federal judge ruled that the city's handling of the exam had the effect of perpetuating the predominantly white status quo, because 78 percent of those "well-qualified" candidates were white.

Two months ago, the legal odyssey ended when the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals tossed out the lawsuit on a technicality.

By ruling that the lawsuit was filed too late, the appeals court spared Chicago taxpayers a potential for $100 million in damages. The ruling also meant that 132 would-be black firefighters were not moved to the head of the class.

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