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Clearwater is in no hurry to bring in new fire chief

CLEARWATER — It's been nearly two months since Clearwater's former fire chief, Jamie Geer, was arrested and ousted from his job. But Clearwater is in no hurry to launch a big search for his permanent replacement.

For now, the city's leaders are perfectly happy to stick with the interim fire chief, Robert Weiss, who had been Geer's second-in-command.

That's mainly because there are two complicated and significant developments going on with the Clearwater Fire Department right now, and officials think it would be tough to bring in somebody new to deal with it all.

For one thing, Clearwater is engaged in intense contract negotiations with its firefighters union, which has historically been at odds with the city administration. Firefighters and paramedics have been working without a contract for three years.

For another thing, Pinellas County is considering a radical shift in the way it divvies up tax money among local fire districts. Cities like Clearwater could see a dramatic drop in money from the county, which could lead to major changes.

"I'm not motivated to bring a new fire chief into this environment," said City Manager Bill Horne, who will ultimately hire Geer's replacement. "I have a lot of confidence in Bob Weiss. I don't think the environment right now is conducive to bringing an outsider in."

The City Council agrees.

"If it isn't broken, don't fix it — especially during this time of transition," Mayor Frank Hibbard said.

Sudden change

When Clearwater's previous police chief, Sid Klein, decided to retire, the city launched a monthslong national search before hiring Klein's successor, Tony Holloway, about a year ago.

That's not the case with the Fire Department.

The last fire chief, Geer, was arrested Dec. 13 on a charge of capital sexual battery. He was accused of sexually abusing a young girl for several years.

Geer, 56, was fired immediately. He remains at the Pinellas County Jail, where's he's in protective custody in a single cell. "That's not unusual in high-profile cases," said Pinellas sheriff's spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda.

Weiss, who had been Geer's deputy, is now interim chief of the department, which has about 210 employees and a $23 million budget.

He worked for Tampa Fire Rescue for 25 years before retiring in 2003. He joined the Clearwater department in 2005 and was promoted to deputy chief in 2008.

Weiss, 61, hasn't talked to anyone about seeking the chief's job permanently.

"It's a little early for that," he said. "We have quite a lot on our plate right now. My direction is to move us through these issues so we can get to a period of stability."

Clearwater is also saving money by not paying a fire chief's salary. Geer earned nearly $113,000 a year plus benefits. Weiss' salary was $89,000 as a deputy chief and is $97,900 as interim chief. The city hasn't hired another deputy chief.

Burning issues

Decisions made over the next year will affect how Clearwater's firefighters and paramedics are paid, and possibly how many of them the city will have.

For starters, the city is in salary negotiations with its fire rescue employees. Clearwater has agreed on contracts with its public workers union and two police unions — but not the firefighters union, whose members voted down Clearwater's previous contract offer a year ago.

"While I think both sides have made a sincere effort, there are still several issues in dispute," said Joe Roseto, the city's human resources director. "We have proposed a three-year contract with them only getting one pay raise a year. They have historically been receiving two pay raises a year. With our current budgetary challenges, we don't feel that's sustainable."

Union officials didn't return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

The main issue is the firefighters' so-called "step" raises — automatic 5 percent annual raises during their first five years on the job, followed by 2.5 percent step raises every other year for the next 12 years. That's in addition to any negotiated wage increases.

Largo eliminated its step plan for firefighters last year. Clearwater wants to sunset the plan as well.

Clearwater also will have to grapple with the possibility that Pinellas County will dramatically change the way it divides emergency medical services tax money among fire districts. A consultant's study recommends the change, which means Clearwater could lose up to $1.5 million a year in county funding.

"We're in the midst of trying to digest what the study actually means for the city of Clearwater," Weiss said. "Our two goals are to maintain the level of service we currently have, and also to work with the county to achieve a sustainable funding source."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Clearwater is in no hurry to bring in new fire chief 02/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 5, 2011 2:41pm]
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