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Clearwater council steps in to end impasse between firefighters, city

CLEARWATER — The City Council reluctantly intervened Thursday in the impasse between city management and the firefighter union, opting to give firefighters a one-time bonus instead of a general wage increase.

The council voted 4-1 to give the 187 firefighters 11/2 percent of their base annual salaries in a one-time bonus. Council member Carlen Petersen was the lone dissenter.

The bonuses would equate to about $1,000 per firefighter and would cost the city about $172,000. That's less than the 3 percent general increase raise that was built into the city's 2007-08 Fire Department budget and would have cost the city $336,000.

Union leaders expect the bonus to be ratified by their membership within a couple of weeks. Now the city and union must return to the bargaining table to hash out the last two years of the three-year deal.

"I'm disappointed in both sides," Mayor Frank Hibbard told the city and union negotiation teams. "Ultimately, we are working for the same employer: the citizen. There is fault on both sides and it really is tiring."

Council member John Doran said coming before the council isn't the way the process is supposed to work.

"Negotiations are to take place at the bargaining table and not the dais," he said.

The decision for the bonus comes after a year of negotiations on a three-year contract that was to begin in October 2007.

This summer, the city declared an impasse in negotiations. Both parties waived a hearing before a special magistrate from the state's Public Employees Relations Commission, forcing the council to decide on a proposed one-year wage increase Thursday morning.

Members of Clearwater Fire Fighters Association Local 1158 filled the council chambers.

"They made it clear for both sides that there needs to be give and take in the process," said John Lee, the union's president. "I know I heard that loud and clear. I'm just hoping management heard it as well."

Said Joseph Roseto, the city's human resources director: "Our perspective is we have always respected the collective bargaining process and will continue to support it."

Though the contract has been unsettled, not all firefighters have gone without pay raises.

City firefighters and police officers are on a step program, which means that in addition to their general raise, they receive an additional 5 percent increase annually for the first five years of their employment. After that, police officers receive a 21/2 percent increase for seven years, while firefighters receive a 21/2 percent increase every other year for 14 years.

According to the union's presentation, 71 firefighters and medics were not eligible for step increases during the last fiscal year.

Council members said they were disappointed that union leaders never presented the city's original offer, which included a 3 percent raise each year for three years, to its membership. Union leaders said gthat because of some of the language in the contract, they knew the membership would vote the offer down.

Council members also were surprised to learn that 17 firefighters who were supposed to have gotten step raises had not received them because their supervisors had yet to complete their evaluations.

"There is no excuse for that," council member Paul Gibson said. "I'm shocked and whoever was supposed to do them needs to be disciplined."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com

Clearwater council steps in to end impasse between firefighters, city 09/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 24, 2008 6:09pm]
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