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Dunedin firefighters union may sue city over reserve pension money

DUNEDIN — This city's firefighters are exploring whether to take their complaints to a judge after Dunedin officials refused to process their grievance that alleges unfair labor practices.

Leaders of the Dunedin Firefighters Association say they're being denied a new retirement benefit that they were promised during 10 months of contract negotiations.

But in a response released late Monday, city officials denied making any misrepresentations. They also say that their innocence is a moot point because disputes about pensions or negotiation discussions aren't subject to arbitration under their collective bargaining agreement with the firefighters union.

"The course and conduct of negotiations, and the conduct of the city negotiators, is not part of the agreement and is not subject to the grievance process," the city wrote.

On Tuesday, union officials said they and their attorney were still reviewing the city's response before deciding what their next step will be.

Meanwhile, the City Commission is gearing up for a second public hearing and vote Thursday on the pension ordinance at the center of the dispute.

If approved, the proposed ordinance would steer the entire pot of $832,000 in pension reserve money back into the city's pension fund rather than using a portion of it to establish a new retirement benefit for firefighters.

An official actuarial report, released after negotiations were complete, determined the city should receive the $832,000 as reimbursement for extra benefits paid out to firefighters over the last decade.

That upsets fire union leaders, who believe city negotiators may have intentionally misled them into thinking a separate actuarial study, privately sanctioned by the city, had already determined the two parties would evenly split the reserve money.

Firefighters said they didn't try for raises on the belief that they would use their portion of the reserve funds as seed money for a "share plan" — a retirement account in addition to their pension.

In a grievance filed last week, union leaders contend that the city violated several articles of its collective bargaining agreement. They said they're seeking the promised share plan money as well as reimbursement of any wages or benefits lost "as the result of the city's improper action."

The grievance also decried the city's refusal to release a copy of the pension study documents that the city frequently referenced during negotiations.

Documents show that the city denied the union's public records request, saying the documents are exempt because they're considered "work product" related to negotiations.

"Negotiations are over, so why can't you produce it? It comes down to, if you didn't lie about it, prove it," lead fire negotiator Mark Zipeto said Tuesday.

"We're not accusing. However, we're questioning," Zipeto said. "We're asking them to prove it to us (that they didn't lie) and they won't do that."

City negotiators have countered that the pension reserve numbers they used during negotiations were estimates.

In the city's response to the firefighters union's grievance, city officials said a share plan was created, though it will start with a zero balance.

City commissioners gave initial approval to the ordinance earlier this month, saying they believe the dispute boils down to a miscommunication between the two parties.

Several commissioners added that negotiations had already gone on too long and that they couldn't let the firefighters renege on their agreement. At least one commissioner questioned why the firefighters initially agreed to the ordinance before seeing the final pension findings.

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

Dunedin firefighters union may sue city over reserve pension money 06/14/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 14, 2011 8:52pm]

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