Fire Department contract difficult yet necessary

Editor & Publisher

To lead and lead effectively, one must know when to put oneself aside.

For Longboat Key Commissioners that means realizing the difference between good judgment and leading from biased positions and a priori judgments.

I am talking about the Firefighter contract the Town Commission will be asked to approve on Monday.

And let me admit my bias, my a priori position that drives all my analysis and conviction on this issue: The Town of Longboat Key must provide the highest level of fire, public safety and emergency medical services that can be obtained given the constraints of budget and technology.


Contract justification…

In other words the fundamentals for EMS are response times and level of care. And if you go with the fact that the average age of a Longboater is 68 years old, the one guarantee is sooner or later you or your loved one will be calling 911.

So what does Longboat Key do and what does it provide that is above and beyond or superior to the County and other municipalities?

First, most every call brings responders to the residence within five minutes on Longboat. That efficiency and response time is unheard of. It is something that ought to be coveted and protected. We achieve this by manning two stations and having crews who know not only every street on the island, but in many cases are familiar with the patients, their medical histories and their medications.

The 33 members of the Longboat Key Fire Department are not some part of a rotating county staff with a single station that meets the county level of service. Instead, the Longboat department is run by Chief Paul Dezzi, perhaps one of the most energetic and respected Chiefs in the region and the service is close to concierge.

So response times are above the norm. Then there is the level of service.

Longboat historically has hired employees with no less than five years of experience. And why is that?

Well, elderly patients with multiple failing systems and complications are best served by experienced paramedics. On Longboat, every fire department responder is a paramedic. By contrast, Sarasota County allows one paramedic to respond to each call and the rest of the crew will be EMTs with far less training. Paramedics have more education, medical certifications and can complement each other’s knowledge base.

These are the things that many residents and realtors and anyone in the business of deciding where to live or retire know: Longboat provides top-notch emergency medical care.  That enhances Longboat’s value and property values. It is key for buyers of our coveted real estate.


A threat from within

So the problem — and it is a critical one — is all of this is under threat. And it is under threat because the most previous Commission stopped paying its employees competitively. That is where the a priori biases need to be examined.

Let’s face the facts: we all have images of being held hostage by unions and resenting the demands and costs incurred when collective bargaining raises its head.

But on Longboat Key we have performed a severe over-correction and now we are paying the price. The last Commission capped its pension exposure and a contract was agreed upon that has the Firefighters paying the employer’s share of the pension costs. In short, the Town and employee each share the cost, but the Town capped its contribution at 13% and the firefighters must pay the rest.


Commission created unfunded liability

The Town was recoiling a few years ago from the unfunded liability that it had created and was adamant about capping its exposure. But the facts are that the Town created the bulk of that unfunded liability because it manipulated the actuarial methodology in order to pay less. It kept assuming investment returns that were wrong year after year and then it kept using the assumptions. The Town then smoothed pension costs over longer periods all so it had to pay less into the fund year after year. The losses compounded and the Town did not pay down the unfunded liability. That is when the most recent Commission came on board and wanted out of the pension business.

To its credit it froze the Town run plan and agreed to let the employees join the Florida Retirement System.

Now, the Town must each year pay a share and it is no longer in the pension business. The Town can no longer keep the millage artificially low and avoid pension costs. Every year a bill is due and it must be paid.

So the question really is who should pay the bill each year: the employee or the Town? And like in all capitalistic societies, there is a market and it has spoken loud and clear.

Every fire department and municipality other than Longboat Key pays the entirety of the pension minus the 3% state mandated employee contribution.

So what seemed like such a good idea a couple of years ago is now damaging the Town. It looks good on paper and sounds great to cap costs, but the other departments pay the pensions.

In short, we are losing our employees and not receiving the kind of qualified and experienced applicants we always used to see in years past. The town has spent tens of thousands of dollars over the past year training new hires only to have them leave the town after we have bought fire gear, paid for certifications and training. And why are they leaving? Because Sarasota County and Hillsboro County and Manatee all pay the pension contribution.


Do not demean community…

This issue is severe. Nothing is more important to the welfare of Longboat Key residents. We should not even think of demeaning the staff and by proxy the community by underpaying the firefighters and emergency personnel.

This Commission needs to support this contract. The manager, who is one of the Town’s most balanced administrators we have had, says it is simply what it will take to keep the department competitive and continue our level of service.

The Fire Chief says it is fundamental to keeping and recruiting the kind of employees that Longboat has come to expect.

This is something we cannot do on the cheap. We cannot pretend we exist in a vacuum. We are in a market of paramedics and firefighters. They have an actual market value. We cannot allow our dislike of pensions, unions and negotiations to get in the way of what is best for the taxpayers of Longboat Key.

I think it will be difficult for some of the Commissioners. But we can hope they have enough respect for the residents that they do not erode the very reason we are a community. After all, what is the point of incorporation and running a town government if it is to not demand and support superior level of service? We should resist the temptation to erode that service in the name or under the guise of “fiscal responsibility.”

There is a time to be a cheapskate in life — and this is not it.

This Commission supported going into debt for $50 million to bury its power lines. This Commission just spent $10 million to truck sand in to its beaches.

Let’s not lose focus of our priorities and compensate when it comes to the most fundamental service we provide — saving our residents from harm.

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3 Responses for “Fire Department contract difficult yet necessary”

  1. Ross P. Alander says:

    I am very glad that the Commission approved the firefighter’s labor contract. I sat in on the negotiations (I have been involved in labor negotiations on both sides over the years) and saw the the professionalism,the hard work, the commitment and the passion of both parties. If we can afford to “make LBK look better” with the underground utilities then we can surely afford to take care of those that take care of us, the firefighters and EMT’s.
    Ross P. Alander, MLIR, Labor Arbitrator

  2. Jocelyn says:

    I was visiting Longboat Key in April. While walking on the beach taking photos I fell in a hole and broke my ankle. A very nice lady and her granddaughters called 911 for me. The EMT’s arrived in minutes. They had to get the beach buggy to take me off the beach to the ambulance. I can’t thank them enough for their professionalism, kindness, and knowledge. Please don’t short change such a valuable service for all the residents and visitors on Longboat Key.

  3. Tom Batchelor says:

    Steve, you’re spot on except in one area, experience of new hires. Historically yes, Longboat used to hold that five year criteria in high regard, however, in the last 8 years I’d say, they have thrown it out the window. Very few, if any of the paramedics hired while I was still working there, had any experience at all. Most were fresh out of school. If anyone is telling you otherwise, they’re flat out lying. This was due to the behavior of the town commission with their “cut cut cut” mentality and no raises for 8 years and finally, requiring employees to pay nearly four times the amount for FRS pension than any other FRS employer in the state. So yes, at one time that was the standard, but hasn’t been for a long time. What’s been carrying the agency in the EMS quality side has been we experienced personnel (I had 32 years total time as a practicing paramedic) and the few remaining. Most have retired out and only a few experienced paramedics remain, again, due to the town’s behavior. There is no one or nothing else to blame, they did it, they’ll have to live with the consequences. So you might want to adjust your article, they do not hire experienced personnel, because they cannot… or perhaps could not. With the new contract and payroll numbers and a corrected pension contribution, this may changed. In my 27 years with Longboat, I can tell you, I have never seen such a governing body who absolutely, damaged the level of Emergency Medical care like these commissioners did. I sure hope they’ve learned their lesson, especially one of the recent termed out commissioners who I won’t mention by name but her initials might be LL.

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