The Longboat Key Town Commission ratified a new three-year firefighter contract Tuesday, Jan. 22, at a special meeting, leaving it up to the firefighters’ union to make the contract official.
“It’s taken a long time for you all to get here,” said Town Manager Dave Bullock. “Our labor attorney advised he has never witnessed a commission that’s so carefully and aggressively participated in the process like you have.”
The commission unanimously ratified the contract. The union has stated it will now put the contract to a vote within 14 days.
The union agreed Thursday, Jan. 17, to bring the tentative contract agreement to its 30 members after four hours of contract negotiations.
Bullock and town pension attorney James Linn will travel to Tallahassee to try to persuade Florida Division of Retirement officials to agree to a plan in which firefighters would make after-tax reimbursements to the town toward any employee benefit outside of Florida Retirement of Retirement (FRS) contributions.
However, if the Division of Retirement does not agree to the plan by Feb. 1, the employee’s reimbursement would come through a reduction in wages — and the plan will be tougher to sell to the union.
“From a numerical standpoint, if this is not approved, I think we have a steep uphill battle,” said fire union attorney Jim Brantley.
The town and its firefighters reached a tentative agreement in December to freeze the firefighters’ current pension plan and enroll current and future firefighters in the FRS plan.
The town and firefighters would split required FRS contributions 50/50, with the town’s maximum contribution capped at 13%, according to the agreement.
For example, the current FRS employer contribution is 14.9%. Employees and the town would each pay 7.45%. (Employees would also pay an additional 3%, which is their required contribution toward the plan.)
If the required contribution rose to 28%, the town would pay 13%, while firefighters would be responsible for 15%, in addition to their required 3%.
But Division of Retirement officials told town pension attorneys they would not approve any pre-tax or post-tax deduction in wages. They would, however, approve the employee reimbursement as a wage deduction.
For instance, suppose an employee earns $10 an hour. The tentative contract includes a 3% cost-of-living allowance for firefighters, bringing wages to $10.60. The Division of Retirement will allow the town to reduce the employee’s wages by 7.45%, bringing pay to $9.81 per hour. Then, assuming $2 for taxes and Social Security, the employee might take home $7.81 per hour.
The Division of Retirement will not allow the town to deduct 7.45% of the employee’s pay.
Town labor attorney W. Reynolds Allen proposed continuing with plans to enroll employees in FRS, including the associated wage reduction. He told firefighters that if their union could present an opinion to the town from the Division of Retirement by June 1 concluding that after-tax wage deduction would be allowable and wouldn’t cost the town extra money, the town would agree to the arrangement.
The town is willing to help firefighters find legislative support if needed, he said.
Longboat Key Fire Rescue District Vice President Keith Tanner told the Longboat Observer the vote will most likely take place over a three-day period in February.
He expressed confidence that members would approve it if state agencies agree to allow for an after-tax deduction.
“I think we can get it ratified,” Tanner said. “The members wanted a DB (defined-benefit) plan and that’s what we’ve accomplished. It’s not the best plan in the world, but we’ve gotten the security of a DB.”
On Tuesday, commissioners praised Bullock’s leadership for getting the contract where it is today, noting that it has taken the town more than four years to approve a three-year contract.
“We couldn’t have arrived where we did without the focus you provided at every meeting,” said Commissioner Pat Zunz.
Bullock expressed support for the firefighters’ proposal at the end of negotiations Thursday evening.
“I want this to be a post-tax deduction,” he said. “It makes sense to me. I’ll work for that. The town has no other agenda.”