Contract negotiations between the town and the Longboat Key Fire Rescue Union look to be far from reaching a middle ground.
The town’s labor attorney told firefighters in attendance at a Wednesday, Aug. 19 public negotiation session at Town Hall that because of declining revenues, the town is not willing to offer a new, three-year contract with any major changes.
The town is currently offering a new, three-year contract — from Oct. 1, 2009, through Sept. 20, 2012 — that denies the firefighters cost-of-living and step increases for at least the first year of the contract.
The town’s labor attorney, Reynolds Allen, of Allen, Norton & Blue, said the bargaining unit was receiving a fair offer.
“We all know you do a great job and provide a great service,” Allen said. “When times are good, you have been well awarded. But when things are bad, the system has to change.”
The firefighters, represented by Keith Tanner, a firefighter-paramedic and district vice president for the Longboat Key District of International Association of Firefighters, responded to Allen’s claims and proposal by submitting the bargaining unit’s counter proposal for the next three years.
In contrast to the town’s proposal, the bargaining unit’s counter proposal asked for more vacation time, additional medical leave and annual step increases, which Tanner said will bring the department in line with area departments.
In short, the counter proposal calls for 5% cost-of-living allowance increases in years two and three of the contract, the eligibility of wage increases and the creation of a retirement health savings plan that allows participants to access 100% of their balance when they leave and requires the town to contribute certain amounts per year of the top paramedic pay for three years to each participant.
The town, meanwhile, proposed an addendum to its contract that states the pension plan will continue through Sept. 30, 2010. The town proposes the plan will be monitored thereafter, while also retaining the right to change the amount it puts into the plans.
The firefighters also proposed amending the firefighter pension plan, allowing eligible participants to retire after 20 years of service at any age or 10 years of service at the age of 55.
Tanner said decreasing the retirement eligibility from 25 years to 20 years and creating the health savings plan will help save the town money.
Allen called the bargaining union’s proposal “very surprising” after perusing the document for about two hours.
The attorney said, at first glance, the proposal calls for more than $300,000 in upfront costs in year one of the contract.
Tanner, along with firefighter-paramedics Jeff Bullock and Jason Berzowski, disputed Allen’s claims and numbers, explaining that the counter proposal was just a step toward reaching an eventual middle ground.
Tanner said that despite the economic woes, the city of Tampa’s firefighters received wage and cost-of-living increases last year, and Sarasota County gave its department a 3% cost-of-living increase in years two and three of its current contract.
Tanner expressed concern that the department would fall below the mark of what other area departments pay, like it did a couple of years ago, if the town’s contract maintains the status quo.
But Allen didn’t discuss the bargaining unit’s proposal for long, explaining that the town has no money to fund many of the concepts proposed. He said the town’s cost for the firefighter pension has gone from 24.7% of the general fund in 2006 to 35% in 2007-08.
Allen also said there’s no money available for future wage increases.
“Our proposal costs the town nothing,” Allen said. “Your proposal is very costly to the town.”
Allen will take the counter proposal to the Town Commission this Friday for its review during an executive session that’s closed to the public.
Bullock and Tanner, however, urged Allen to review the numbers and assess pension savings first.
“We don’t expect everything, but taking this proposal to the commission prematurely is a disservice to the commissioners and a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Bullock said.
But Allen said he would not delay the process, although he is still willing to review counter proposals that show how the town can save money.
The fire department’s current contract expired May 31, which means the department continues to operate on the status quo on a month-to-month basis until a new contract is reached.
In the town’s current contract, a Longboat Key firefighter paramedic’s top salary is $76,642, while the entry-level salary is $51,309.