Longboat Key has reversed its hard-line stance against offering a pension plan to its firefighters. Late Tuesday afternoon, the town offered them a proposal with a state pension-plan option that both parties accepted.
“We have done a lot of soul searching and had a lot of discussions,” said town labor attorney Reynolds Allen. “We took a pretty strong position from day one that we don’t want to be in the defined-benefit business at all. But, we have also heard you and heard from your chief, which has a lot to do with what we are recommending.”
The accepted proposal includes:
• Freezing the current pension plan after allowing six current firefighters to enter the Deferred Retirement Options Program (DROP).
• A 3% cost-of-living allowance wage increase in year one and raises and cost-of-living increases in years two and three of the contract, only if other non-represented town employees receive such a raise.
• Allowing all current and future firefighters to participate in the Florida Retirement System (FRS) pension plan, with the town agreeing to match employee contributions up to 13%.
If any additional contribution is required by firefighters to fund their pensions, it’s up to the firefighters to pay for it out of their paychecks.
This year, FRS is requiring employees to pay a 17.9% pension contribution. Under the proposed deal, the town would pay 7.45% and the firefighters would pay 7.45%, along with an additional mandatory FRS contribution of 3%, that puts the firefighters’ contribution at 10.45%.
If the FRS required contribution rose, as an example, to 27%, the town would pay no more than its cap at 13% and firefighters would pay 14%, plus the additional 3% contribution, which would result in a decrease in pay for firefighters during that year.
As part of the proposed contract, firefighters are also eligible to have personal time and emergency leave counted as hours worked for overtime eligibility. Both parties have made additional agreed upon changes to the former contract.
When firefighters tried to counter with further wage increases and step-plan wages for years two and three of the contract, Town Manager Dave Bullock told firefighters it wasn’t going to happen.
“Just so I’m crystal clear, I’ve laid it all out there with 3%,” Bullock said.
Firefighters might take the 3% increase in year one and stagger it among themselves to give those who have been employees longer a larger increase because they have not received a wage increase in the past four years.
Bullock has directed the union to take the proposed contract language directly to the union for ratification. But he wasn’t willing to say the Longboat Key Town Commission was ready to ratify the proposed contract yet.
“All I can do is take this forward and recommend it, and that’s what I will do,” Bullock said.
The commission’s goal is to freeze the town’s pension plans and cap more than $27 million in unfunded liabilities for which town taxpayers are left holding the bag.
Tuesday’s agreement was a big change from negotiations that were held last week.
Bullock and Allen refused to give firefighters an FRS retirement option Friday, Dec. 7, explaining the plan and its future risk would give firefighters the option of asking for wage increases to cover increased FRS costs.
But that stance changed after Bullock held an executive session Monday with the commission and immediately called for Tuesday’s negotiation session.
When asked after the meeting why he had softened his stance on the FRS option, Bullock said, “I do what I think is in the best interest of the town and we will see where this goes.”
The agreement comes after 12 hours’ worth of discussions in two days last week and a variety of counterproposals that were swapped back and forth. One counterproposal included a 17% wage increase and no retirement option for firefighters.
Last week, Longboat Key Fire Rescue District Vice President Keith Tanner expressed disappointment with negotiations and said not offering a pension plan would force experienced firefighters to find work elsewhere and decrease the level of fire service Longboaters have come to expect.
Tanner said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the FRS option to which both sides were able to agree.
“Our overall objective was to keep some sort of a defined-benefit plan, and I think this will be ratified,” Tanner said. “Hopefully, this is a time when both sides can heal their wounds after four years of negotiations and we can concentrate on making this a nice place to work again. Enough is enough. It’s time to move forward.”