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Fire contract negotiations heat up

Both the town of Longboat Key and its fire rescue union have agreed to look at wages and pension contribution modifications as part of a new three-year contract.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. June 24, 2015
  • Longboat Key
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The past two months of animosity from both sides of a new Longboat Key firefighter/paramedics contract might have been beneficial in the long run — they now appear ready to work together at the negotiation table.

Recently Longboat Key Fire Rescue Union representatives have presented salary information showing why they were underpaid, while the town manager has presented reasons why he believes firefighter paramedics are paid reasonable wages. In addition, the fire chief was removed from the town’s negotiation table for comments made about wages and pension contributions.

All of that ocurred before the town and the union sat down for its first meaningful contract negotiation session of the summer season June 16, which sets the tone for negotiations for a new three-year contract that begins Oct. 1.

And after the firefighter union presented a 43-page PowerPoint presentation to town staff and labor attorney Reynolds Allen, the union pitched a plea to work together amicably for a new contract.

“We want to work together to put together a new contract,” said Lt. Jason Berzowski, union negotiator. “In the past we hand over proposals that go nowhere and it always ends in a standstill. We want to open dialogue and work together.”

The comments set the tone for a calm and polite one-hour discussion.

When Allen asked for a copy of what the union wants, Berzowski said the union hasn’t crafted anything for the town to review yet.

“We want to see where you are at before we start asking for things that you will turn around and say no to,” Berzowski said.

But what the union wants most, according to Berzowski’s presentation, is to have wages competitive with surrounding departments and pension contributions that don’t have firefighters paying any more than the mandated 3% Florida Retirement System (FRS) contribution. Currently, firefighter/paramedics pay more than 10% above the 3% required FRS contribution toward their pensions.

Berzowski said the department is in danger of losing firefighter/paramedics to Sarasota and Hillsborough counties because they have higher wages and better pay for firefighter/paramedic lieutenant positions. For instance, wage comparisons show a 10-year firefighter lieutenant in Sarasota County makes $76,527.36 a year and a Hillsborough County firefighter lietenant makes $77,051.52. A 10-year firefighter lieutenant on Longboat Key makes $70,790.72.

Making matters worse, the department is prepared to lose six firefighter/paramedics to a mandated Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP) over the next two years.

Part of the reason the town has fallen behind on wages for entry-level and lieutenant positions, Berzowski said, is because a wage step increase plan has been frozen for the past six years.

Because of looming retirements in Sarasota County, the county will hire 35 firefighter/paramedics in November and another 100 positions in 2016-17. And Hillsborough County is set to replace approximately 200 firefighter/paramedics preparing to retire in the next two years.

“I have guys that have told me if we don’t fix the wages, they’re heading to those departments next year,” Berzowski said. “All we want is a wage and benefit package that retains top-notch employees and makes them feel valued. We want to do this with as little financial impact to the town and its citizens as possible.”

Although Town Manager Dave Bullock stated last month he believes the town will not have any problem hiring six firefighter/paramedic positions that will be open in May, Allen told the union the town is willing to discuss both wages and pension contributions modifications as part of a new contract.

“We can work out an overall deal,” Allen said. “We recommend you get your pencil really sharp and come back with specificity in regard to pension and pay. Tell us everything you want, and we can go through it and get it rolling with the commission.”

Berzowski said the union is also open to a modified pay for performance plan similar to a new plan going into place for the town’s general employees, where Bullock will provide raises only to employees who meet specific requirements.

After the meeting, Bullock told the Longboat Observer he appreciated the effort the union made at the session.

“The two topics they want to discuss (pension and wages) are the ones to be talking about.”

— Longboat Key Town Manager Dave Bullock

“We’ll work together to create a new contract,” Bullock said. “The two topics they want to discuss (pension and wages) are the ones to be talking about.”

The only item of discussion for a contract Bullock won’t negotiate was a suggestion the union made that the town reorganize management/employee rights, so that the "decision making process within our fire department more fair and equitable to employees.”

Bullock is in charge of personnel decisions town-wide and has no desire to change management policies as part of contract negotiations. 


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