Fire contract passes 4-3

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In a sharply debated vote, focused on whether the town or the firefighters should assume pension costs, a new contract was approved with a 4-3 vote.

The contract, which Town Manager Dave Bullock negotiated with the Fire Department Union, requires the town to pay all pension costs in the Florida Retirement System (FRS) except for the state mandated 3 percent employee contribution. As a concession, the Firefighters agreed to an across-the-board 11 percent pay reduction.

“This is the lowest cost contract we’ve been able to make any progress with and does not affect the town’s overall budget,” said Bullock.

Vice Mayor Terry Gans spoke up in support.

“Everyone’s first choice was to preserve the cap,” said Gans.

Gans was referring to the 13 percent cap that the town’s previous contract with the firefighters imposed that limited the town to paying up to 13 percent of pension costs and the employee paying anything beyond that amount. The firefighters and the Fire Chief and town staff told the town leaders that no other department or municipality in the FRS system operated in such a manner and that every other department paid the entire pension contribution minus the 3 percent employee share. The argument made by Firefighers was that the town was no longer competitive and it was losing employees after the town spent thousands training them and outfitting them with fire gear all because of the disparity in benefits.

“We had the belief we would be the model for other municipalities; that did not happen. We stand alone. We can hope, wish and stick to our guns…if we are to have a Fire Department and Paramedics we must be competitive,” said Gans.

Commissioner Ed Zunz agreed.

“Nobody followed us and the result is we have gained a bad reputation around Florida, so it has ultimately not served us well. We have outstanding people through Town Hall, Police and Public Works and we are very fortunate to have the people we have and we have been a little too stingy over the past couple of years. The fact that we have reduced taxes and kept services at a high level we owe largely to our employees. Everyone loves our employees and we are blessed, and they all deserve to be fairly compensated and we have achieved that result in this contract,” said Zunz.

Commissioner Phill Younger disagreed and warned what the future will hold if the contract is approved.

“Gans and Zunz have made two eloquent speeches and when you look at the raw numbers it looks very attractive, but there is a hook in it. We always hear that morale is low, and people will leave us when a contract is up for approval, we previously got talked into a defined benefit plan with a cap, and now we have taken a quantum leap and it will destroy the defined contribution aspect of the program. As for other communities, if lemmings run to the sea and over the cliff, it doesn’t mean you have to follow them. In three years, we will be back and then the firefighters will want to work on the pay. This is not the best thing, or most healthy thing for the Town of Longboat Key in the long run,” said Younger.

Commissioner Armando Linde said that the previous pension the town used to run, which is now a frozen plan, costs the town $3 million in taxes each year. He said that 27 cents of each tax dollar goes to pay the frozen plan and that cost will rise even more.

These warnings were overshadowed by Commissioner Irwin Pastor who said that the contract supports exactly what residents want.

“If this was not a legislative decision and was a referendum, I can tell you beyond any doubt the taxpayers would support this. When you make a decision to live on Longboat Key, the first thing you check out is the safety and the emergency response department. Additionally, this contract was previously negotiated by the commission and five out of six commissioners supported it. Today should be a formality at best. It is unbelievable when you tell the town manager and labor attorney to negotiate and then flip; you don’t do that! We set a standard because people want a level of service and this has nothing to do with fiscal responsibility,” said Pastor.

Commissioner Jack Daly who attended the meeting via telephone, supported the contract as well.

“it is clear to me that one of the many reasons that make Longboat Key the special place that it is is the police and fire. I fully endorse the current proposal,” said Daly.

Mayor Jack Duncan was not supportive of the contract. He said that the Firefighters “Did a much better job in negotiating for the future than we are.  My sense is that when we pass this, if we pass this, we will give up our ability to negotiate. In three years, you will be saying you are underpaid and need pay increases. We have now moved into a situation that is untenable to me. I believe we should go to impasse, we need to work with you, I care about working with you, together. We have a $27 million debt and we are not making progress,” said Duncan.

Then Duncan noted that the only way the town will be able to repay that debt is to raise taxes.

“I’m going to say the holiest of unholies,” said Duncan, “I think we will have to give up our Fire Department and employees. I think it is a good contract, but my concern is hemorrhaging in the future.”

Linde offered a few final words before the vote.

“I do not appreciate saying ‘Do this now, because morale is low,’ I say ‘buck up,’” said Linde.

The commission then approved the contract with Pastor, Zunz, Daly, and Gans voting ‘Yes’ and Duncan, Younger and Linde voting ‘No.’

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