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Fire cuts

FILE PHOTO Granite City fire Chief Tim Connolly. City officials are concerned they'll have to lay off firefighters to meet pension demands.

Granite City officials say they may have to lay off police and firefighters if more money isn't made available to fund pensions. The question of where to get the funding may be put to voters.

The issue is over a new state rule that forces municipalities to contribute a certain amount to employee pension plans. Previously, some governments reduced contributions to save money. Municipalities now have to contribute a larger portion of pensions by 2016 or face penalties.

Granite City officials say they can't make higher contributions and keep the current level of police and fire service without increasing revenue, which primarily comes through property taxes.

The City Council's short-term solution is to increase property tax rates for the pensions by about 84 percent next year. The new budget is set for approval Tuesday. (See sidebar.)

The increase, however, is not likely to produce enough revenue to pay the additional amounts in coming years.

As a long-term solution, Alderman Virgil Kambarian wants to ask residents to approve a permanent tax increase. The question may be put to voters on the primary ballot in March. If not approved, Kambarian said, it could lead to service cuts.

"What it boils down to is, do citizens in our community feel it is important? If they choose not to, you can't reasonably expect us to maintain that level of service," Kambarian said at a council Finance Committee meeting last week.

City Comptroller Scott Oney said the Illinois Department of Insurance in coming months will release how much Granite City owes in the long term. The amount will dictate the steps the city may take and whether the issue will be put on the ballot.

The city has 60 police officers and 55 firefighters.

Police Chief Rich Miller said any cuts would probably reduce the number of special enforcement details that focus on issues like reducing drunken driving and drugs. That would put more pressure on regular patrol officers, Miller said.

"They're dealing with underlying causes before they become a problem. If we cut back, we change the way we do things," he said.

For the Fire Department, staff cutbacks would reduce the number of vehicles available, as well as the possible closure of one of the city's three fire stations, said Fire Chief Tim Connolly. He said the West Granite Fire Station at 2700 Rock Road is most likely to be closed if staffing levels are reduced.

Contact reporter Scott Cousins at 618-344-0264, ext. 113