Another meeting between the Longboat Key Fire Rescue union and the town’s labor attorney did nothing to bring either side closer to a contract that’s suitable for both parties.
For the third meeting in a row, labor attorney Reynolds Allen, of Allen, Norton & Blue, told firefighters the town is in no position to offer them raises in the first year of a three-year contract.
And, for the third meeting in a row, firefighters voiced displeasure with that claim.
The town is 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.
“We are, for the most part, proposing to keep the contract the same as it is,” Allen said. “And the union made a counter proposal that includes $750,000 in new money over a three-year contract.”
The firefighters want 5% cost-of-living allowance increases in years two and three of the contract, 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.
Allen said he went over the firefighter proposal with the Town Commission, and they found it unacceptable.
“We tried to make it clear we are not willing to spend money in the first year of this contract,” Allen said.
“That position has not changed.”
The town, however, is looking into a firefighter proposal that would amend the firefighter pension plan, allowing eligible participants to retire after 20 years of service at any age or 10 years of service and age 55.
Keith Tanner, a firefighter-paramedic and district vice president for the Longboat Key District of International Association of Firefighters, said decreasing the eligible retirement age from 25 years to 20 years and creating the health-savings plan will help save the town almost $700,000 over the course of the three-year contract and close to $2 million over a 10-year period.
“With this proposal, what the town will save on pension costs alone will more than adequately give us what we’re asking for, and, in turn, bring us up to par to the departments in this area,” Tanner said.
Allen confirmed that Finance Director Tom Kelley and the town’s pension actuary are reviewing the pension proposal.
“If those numbers are correct, then we have something to talk about,” Allen said.
But Allen refused to budge on raises, even after the firefighters disputed the town’s current financial status.
“The town wants to decrease millage rates at the expense of $300,000 worth of raises and cost-of-living allowances,” said firefighter-paramedic Jeff Bullock. “I don’t see where the town likes me anymore as an employee.”
“The town has money,” said Tanner, referring to the town’s $4.7 million in reserves. “But the town tells us we have no money, and then the commission gets together and lowers the millage rate.”
Allen, however, insinuated that the firefighters should be happy that they still have jobs and are not being forced to take a pay cut.
“The bottom line is whether the town has the money or not. It’s obvious financials are not like they once were,” said Allen, who pointed out that the city of Fort Myers just laid off 17 firefighters. “We are not proposing to you nearly as severe of an activity as many other communities are.”
But the firefighters were concerned with the town’s actions.
“All I can say is it’s a slap in the face to us when the town’s unreserved fund balance goes up, and the commission lowers the millage rate,” Tanner said.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
If the town and the union cannot agree on a contract, one side would declare an impasse, at which time a special magistrate would review both proposals and make a decision that’s not legally binding, essentially bringing both sides back to the table for future negotiations.
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 $76,643, and the entry-level salary is $51,309.
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