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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

State's decision in Dunedin's pension dispute with firefighters fails to bring resolution

21

September

DUNEDIN -- The city's fire pension dispute with firefighters drags on even though the state has ruled in the employees' favor.

The Florida Division of Retirement recently sided with the Dunedin Firefighters Association's claim that the city's proposal to contribute only 75 percent - instead of 100 percent - of future pension reserve money to the firefighters' share plan is illegal. A share plan is a retirement account in addition to a pension.

Legal wrangling over the money had held up $832,000 in state tax credits that the city had figured into its 2012 budget, forcing officials to use reserves to balance the budget.

So during a special meeting last week, commissioners gave their unanimous preliminary approval to ordinance "clarifications" that would release the frozen funds. Commissioners are slated to hold a second public hearing and a final vote at this Thursday's meeting.

But the battle may not be over: Union officials say the city is trying to push through revised language - complete with a new ordinance number - without sending it back to firefighters for another vote, as required by law.

About a dozen firefighters attended last week's meeting to plead with commissioners to send union and city negotiators back to the bargaining table.

"What they handed us is not a clarification," union vice president and lead fire negotiator Mark Zipeto told commissioners last week. In addition to changing the share plan split, he said, the city replaced the word "will" with "may" in several passages.

"It's changed. Therefore, it goes back to being a new provision, which our firefighters have no voice on," Zipeto said. "It needs to be ratified. As far as we're concerned, bargaining is still open."

The state's decision has opened up a whole new can of worms over a fire pension ordinance the City Commission passed in June.

That ordinance dictates that the city will funnel a percentage -- now 100 percent -- of future pension reserve monies into firefighters' share plan. But firefighters are also upset about another part of the ordinance, which immediately steers an initial pot of $832,000 in pension reserve money back into the city's pension fund. (That $832,000 in immediate compensation has been held up while the state reviewed firefighters' complaint about the percentage of future compensation they'll receive).

Fire union leaders this summer unsuccessfully lobbied the City Commission to reject the ordinance, saying they believed city negotiators misled them into thinking during bargaining that it had already been determined the two parties would evenly split the $832,000.

Last week, firefighters said they have since commissioned a separate actuarial study by the same firm as the city's. That study determined that the city should split the pension money with firefighters, they said.

However, city negotiators dismissed the new findings, saying the studies conflict because the two sides supplied different information to the actuary.

City negotiators have maintained that they made it clear all along that they were using estimates during bargaining. An official actuarial report, released after negotiations were completed, determined that the city should receive the $832,000 as reimbursement for extra benefits paid out to firefighters since 1999.

"Our position is that we have a valid two-year contract that was reached through negotiations that all agreed on and was ratified by the union and approved by the commission," said lead city negotiator Bruce Haddock. "The state's objection was with the share plan split. So we've changed that."

Commissioners said they couldn't halt last week's first public hearing or vote because the state won't confirm how further delays will affect taxpayers.

"I'm confused enough that I could listen to more," said Mayor Dave Eggers, who has questions about the conflicting actuarial studies. "But at the same time, I don't want to lose the credit that we're due. And if that means passing this ordinance and coming back and reconsidering it at a different time, I'm willing to do that."

Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski said she planned to speak with the city's labor attorney. Months ago, she said, the attorney advised commissioners that any fire pension ordinance changes would require that it be negotiated and ratified again.

"And now the same attorneys are telling us that we have more specific direction from the state," Bujalski said. "I see both sides, and I'm very conflicted by it."

Commissioner David Carson lectured both city and union negotiators at last week's meeting. The firefighters, he said, didn't do a good enough job of analyzing their contract during negotiations and asking "what if" questions before ratifying it. On the other hand, he said, the city should have obtained exact numbers during bargaining instead of relying on estimates.

"I think both sides share the reason why we're here today," Carson said. "It took us 14 or 15 months to get here today, and it's just incredible to the lay person, and I can't tell you how disappointed I am."

[Last modified: Wednesday, September 21, 2011 2:41pm]

    

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