By Ann Rubin
Centralia, IL (KSDK) - Firing the fire department. That's on the table in Centralia, Illinois as the mayor looks at ways to cut the budget.
The city is considering trading professionals for volunteers if a contract agreement can't be reached.
But what he sees as an economic emergency, firefighters consider a matter of public safety.
The mayor says when he took office he inherited a $1.5 million deficit. He's asking all departments, operating engineers, police and fire, to do more with less. There have been layoffs in all but the fire department.
"This is just about economics. We have to cut costs. We have to. We have no money," said Mayor Tom Ashby.
But the fire department, which has been in contract talks with the city since November, has big concerns. Centralia wants to freeze firefighter salaries and reduce insurance costs among other things.
The town of 13,000 people spent $3 million dollars on the fire department last year, according to officials. They say that needs to change. If not, they might consider moving to a privately contracted fire department, or even go with volunteers.
"We don't feel that there's any headway with the fire department. That's why we have to, as a responsibility to the citizens of Centralia that we have to make sure we explore our options," said Ashby.
The firefighters hope it doesn't come to that. They think contract talks can still be salvaged.
In the meantime, their union is asking for arbitration.
"We feel that we are making progress. We are open to any and all ideas," said Adam Ruderman, District 3 Vice President of the Associated Firefighters of Illinois.
Residents hope compromise is in the cards. They say in this economy, Centralia is suffering enough.
"If they have volunteers, I'm sure they would do a good job trying to get there too. It's just loss of jobs for a lot of people, which is what all of Centralia is kind of suffering right now anyway," said Beth Kleiboeker.
There are potentially 22 firefighter jobs on the line. And, in a town where the unemployment rate is 12.3 percent, both sides say they're hopeful an agreement can ultimately be reached.