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Town working hard to erode our Fire/EMS team

STEVE REID
Editor & Publisher
sreid@lbknews.com

Death and taxes are life’s certainties. The two conjoin when it comes to maintaining a top-tier Fire and EMS Department on Longboat Key.

It is a simple fact really: you are assessed taxes to have highly-trained employees show up and save your life or the life of a loved one. In fact, they will be the ones who show up when you have that heart attack or stroke, pick you up off the floor when you fall on the tile and make all of the critical decisions that might give you a few extra moments before your remains head to Toale Brothers or you are consigned to some hospice or left to dine interminably at the Plymouth Harbor Cafe.

And the financial difference between attracting the best EMS Firefighter employees to Longboat vs. hiring rookies in need of training amounts to about $300,000 per year.

Unfortunately, the Longboat Commission keeps giving Town Manager Dave Bullock the wrong marching orders when it comes to pension negotiations.

What we should all be afraid of is the fact that our current Commission is more interested in beating the firefighters in contract negotiations than giving the department what it needs to perform most effectively — the not so secret ingredient of competitive pay and pensions.

 

Fire Chief muzzled

The Town’s own Fire Chief said the salary and pension issue needs to be addressed to stay competitive and to hire top-tier firefighters. He said that openly when a resident asked at a Kiwanis Club meeting. And subsequently he was shamed and muzzled and told he could not be trusted and is no longer allowed to sit at the negotiating table.

So let’s start with that fact. The one Town employee who sits in a highly unique position is Fire Chief Paul Dezzi. He is not in the union, but is paid as an at-will employee and has a 401k with the Town. In other words he personally gains nothing if the firefighters make more or less. Yet he is responsible for running the department. That means training, recruiting and executing the mission of the agency. And anyone who knows Dezzi — and the Town Manager would agree — will tell you he is an exemplary employee — good attitude, hard working, open, intelligent.

So he knows what is minimally needed pay-wise to recruit and retain the employees. But the Commission does not want to hear what he has to say. They want to make Longboat Key an outlier; they believe they can pay less and demand more. And then when told it is not working, they get angry and enter a state of denial and misinformation and avoid the axioms of the employee market — it is highly competitive and you do not get what you do not pay for. In other words, short change your EMS and firefighters in compensation and you can beat your chest about saving money and capping liability, but you are simply eroding the most critical service residents will all count on in their slow march through time and declining health. After all, this is like buying bottled water when traveling in the third world — not a good place to try and cut corners.

Here is the grim reality: Longboat Key is the only fire department that does not pay the required pension contribution to the Florida Retirement System.

This is how it works: right now, all members of the FRS pension system are paying about 23% of their salary as an annual pension cost. The state requires the employee pay a mandatory 3%. All other communities and cities and departments in the FRS pay the other 20%. Only Longboat Key forces its employees to pay half in addition to the 3%. This means our fire department employees are now contributing 13% of their salary to maintain a pension.

Compare this with Sarasota County, Hillsborough or any of the hundreds of agencies in the state and we are not competitive. Here are few more reasons why:

• Every other Department in the FRS pays the employee contribution; Longboat Key requires its employees pay half.

• Sarasota County Fire Department employees work 48 hour weeks; Longboat Key Firefighter/EMS work 56. (That offsets the claim that our annual salaries are higher)

• Up until 6 years ago, Longboat Key only hired Firefighter/EMS personnel with a minimum of 5 years experience. Now we are competing with other agencies to get rookies.

• We have not paid any step increases in the past 8 years; Sarasota pays steps.

• It costs thousands per firefighter to train and outfit; we have had 9 leave our department in the past 2 years.

 

A monumental policy disaster

These are just a few of the facts. It really does not come down to the inherited sentiments you or I or the elected commissioners may have about pensions or unions. It comes down to winning the top hires in a competitive market. And that is precisely where Longboat Key is facing a monumental disaster of management and policy direction.

The current Commission would serve us best to take the approach of asking the Fire Chief what the Town has to pay minimally salary and pension wise to attract the finest employees. The answer would be to pay for their pensions and to make salaries competitive.

Longboat Key should never lose a hire to Sarasota. That is shameful. Our residents are older, vulnerable in health and near the age where that medical emergency is inevitable.

Again, to pay the pension contribution the firefighters are asking for costs $300,000. We paid $1.5 million to buy the ditch behind SunTrust Bank to create the possibility of a Town Center. We paid $125,000 to the Urban Land Institute to help the Commission find a clear direction and they told us we should take actions that enhance property values.

So perhaps that should bring us back to the market approach. When a realtor can tell a client that Longboat Key has the most highly trained and effective EMS and Fire Department in the region and we are the envy of other agencies, that tells someone a lot about our community.  That sounds like the kind of community tomorrow’s buyer wants to plunk $1 or $2 million down on a house.

And the cost to pay that pension contribution costs two Tanguerays and tonics per year. Remember, this is for Firefighting and EMS in a town that spent over $1 million last year blowing smoke up sewer pipes in the village looking for water intrusion only to cry hopeless defeat.

Unfortunately, nobody thinks of the Firefighter/EMS folks until they need them. But in this instance, at this moment in time, something that is critical is under a threat from our own Town Commission.

If the Commission wins this fight, it is not the firefighters who lose — every Longboater loses. Just do not count on our elected officials to see it that way. They are too emotionally invested in this fight to do the right thing.

 

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