OAK LAWN, IL – Less than three months after Oak Lawn Fire Chief Michael Mavrogeorge's contract was terminated due to “budget constraints”, the village Board of Trustees this week approved the hiring of deputy Chief Zackary Riddle to fill the vacated position.
Riddle had been serving as the village’s acting fire chief until Tuesday, when board members approved a two-year contract that will pay Riddle $145,000 annually. The contract, which went into effect on Wednesday, indicates that Riddle will be eligible for raises based on annual performance reviews at the discretion of the village manager and subject to board approval, documents show.
Riddle’s starting salary is just more than $3,500 than what Mavrogeorge was earning when he was dismissed without being provided a severance package. According to the stipulations of Riddle’s deal approved Tuesday by the board, the pact includes provision for $52,000 in severance (four months’ salary) if he is terminated without cause over the next the next two years. That amount will increase to $65,000, (or five month’s salary) if Riddle were to let go without cause after he has been with the village for two years. According to the details of Riddle's contract, the severance amount won't go beyond the $65,000 amount.
In May, Mayor Sandra Bury indicated that Mavrogeorge did “nothing wrong” but that his contract was terminated due to a “difficult budgetary decision.” At the time, village officials indicated that Oak Lawn is facing financial distress and facing a budgetary shortfall of between $8 million and $10 million due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Of the Village's $65 million budget, more than two-thirds go to salaries, Bury said.
On Friday, Bury told Patch that as tough as the decisions to make cuts across the board, the Village is bracing for even more as it faces "a catastrophic financial calamity."
"Anything we do to try to survive is going to impact people which is the devastating part of this," Bury said in a telephone interview. "So we are cut to the bone already so any cuts, we are looking at people, sadly.
"These are horrible times, horrible decisions. It's like picking what kid lives and dies."
Mavrogeorge was named Westchester’s Fire Chief on July 1 and told Patch that he was able to land on his feet after being dismissed in Oak Lawn with “no warning” or with “no respect or help for my family. He indicated that before being hired in Westchester that he and his family were planning to relocate to St. Louis.
Mavrogeorge, who signed a contract in 2018 that did not include provision for a severance package, was earning a salary of $141,312 at the time his contract was terminated. Riddle joined the Village's fire department as deputy chief at the same time Mavrogeorge was hired.
Bury said there will be no deputy chief serving under Riddle as departments across the village have been forced to be restructured. The cuts that have been made to date have resulted in a savings to taxpayers of about $1 million, Bury said.
Reached by Patch this week about the village’s decision to move Riddle into his former position, Mavrogeorge declined comment “on any matters involving Oak Lawn” at this time, but that he hopes to speak to the matter at a later time.
Randy Palmer, who has been serving in a dual role as both Oak Lawn’s police chief and acting village manager, said at the time that village officials had investigated alternatives for cutting costs without eliminating positions. But Palmer said that due to ongoing hardships created by the coronavirus pandemic, restricting of the police and fire departments was required.
Palmer did not respond immediately to a request for comment on Friday. Bury said moving forward, the focus will remain on continuing to provide services to local residents. At some point, Bury said the Village expects to receive an allocation of $680,000 in federal funds which will go toward COVID-19 expenses, but those funds won't be permitted to be used for shortfalls in revenue, which means further tough decisions are likely coming.
"There's no joy in it, there's no desire other than to take care of the taxpayers the best way we can," the mayor said. "And in a (fire) department with two chiefs, we needed one chief. That's pretty much what came down to."