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Pension flames Longboat Key firefighter hiring problem

Six firefighters must retire in 2016. Fire Chief Paul Dezzi worries lagging salaries and high pension costs for employees will make it difficult to fill the void when they leave.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. April 29, 2015
  • Longboat Key
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Longboat Key Fire Recue Chief Paul Dezzi recently issued an informal hiring notice for new firefighter/paramedics. He interviewed 24 candidates and narrowed the list down to 12. But of a dozen potential hires, just one was interested in becoming a Longboat Key firefighter/paramedic.

But Dezzi will need six new firefighter/paramedics to fill a void that the department faces next May, when six veteran firefighters who are enrolled in the Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP) must retire. 

Dezzi says the current defined benefit plan that firefighters agreed to two years ago as part of their current three-year contract, which expires Sept. 30, is inhibiting his ability to attract new hires. 

“If I lost those six guys tomorrow I couldn’t fill the positions,” Dezzi told 25 members of the Kiwanis Club of Longboat Key at their April 23 meeting. 

Firefighters opted to enter the Florida Retirement System after the town froze their pension as part of their current contract. FRS mandates employees contribute 3% of their salaries.

On top of that, firefighters agreed to split the town’s required contribution  50/50. The current required contribution is 19.82%, which means the town pays 9.91% and  firefighters pay 9.91%.

With the 3% mandated contribution, that means firefighters currently pay 12.91% toward their defined benefit plan.

That payment could rise: As part of that deal, firefighters agreed that the town would only match the defined benefit contribution up to 13%. 

So, if the FRS defined benefit plan contributions rise, for example, to 30%, the town would only pay 13%, and firefighters’ contribution would rise to 20%, with firefighters paying 17% as part of the split with the town plus their 3% mandated contribution.

The firefighter union agreed to the cap in its quest to keep defined benefit plans because those types of plans don’t put the risk on the employee if the economy deteriorates, causing the value of the stock plan to decline. 

But in nearby municipalities and counties, firefighter paramedics pay the required 3% FRS contribution and the rest of the agreed upon contribution is paid for by the county or municipality, regardless of how high it climbs, Dezzi said.

“It’s tough to compete with that when we convince new hires to come out to the Key,” Dezzi said.

Complicating matters, Dezzi said, is that new hires are aware the town hasn’t offered step increases for the past seven years as part of a new contract, meaning there’s not a big enough pay separation gap between new hires, veterans and management. 

“I have trouble getting firefighters to work into a management role because they know they can make more being on the line,” Dezzi said. “That’s a problem. Guys are losing money working here, and I have trouble grooming management positions.”

The problem isn’t an unexpected one.

 “We knew we would struggle a bit with recruiting because of the pension issue,” said Lisa Silvertooth, the town’s human resources manager. “But it’s what was agreed upon and ratified by the union.”

Silvertooth and Town Manager Dave Bullock point out that as part of the last negotiations, the town offered a defined contribution plan for all firefighters and agreed to pay for all of it.

“But the risk was on the employee if the plan’s return went down, and they didn’t want that,” Silvertooth said. 

Dezzi hopes union negotiations with the town this summer for a new three-year contract, which will take effect Oct. 1, will result in a more favorable pension contribution plan that will entice new hires.

“I think it’s more important to fix the pension issue before we fix the wage issue,” Dezzi said.

Dezzi is also concerned that when the six longtime firefighters retire, his department won’t be able to fill the institutional knowledge gap.  

Dezzi said new hires don’t have a long-term commitment like they did years ago.

“What we’re seeing now is guys who agree to come from the East Coast of Florida because they want to live over here,” Dezzi said. “But as soon as a job opens up nearby with better benefits, they jump ship.”

Silvertooth is compiling a comparison chart of firefighter salaries and pensions in area fire departments to discuss during upcoming negotiations.

Department update

Longboat Key Fire Recue Chief Paul Dezzi says he’s preparing for Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s upcoming certification as a trauma hospital, which could happen as soon as this week.

On April 23, he told Kiwanis Club of Longboat Key members the move means that both ends of the island are served by a trauma hospital because trauma patients on the north end of the island are already served by Blake Medical Center in Bradenton, which also has trauma certification.

“Nowhere else has a trauma hospital on both ends of their community,” Dezzi said. 

It also means that, in most instances, helicopter landings on the Key will be scarce.

“We’ll still call for a helicopter if traffic is backed up in season,” Dezzi said. “But that’s the only time you’ll see helicopters on the island.”

An assessment of the 30-year-old south fire station will also be performed in two weeks to determine whether the station can be renovated or needs to be torn down.

Dezzi also reiterated his support for a 911 dispatch service from Sarasota County.

“It’s the best decision in my opinion,” Dezzi said. 



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