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Dunedin workers: Preserve our jobs, benefits

DUNEDIN — City workers want Dunedin to spend less on park projects, event subsidies and executive pay and more on preserving their jobs and benefits, even at the risk of higher taxes or lower city reserves.

More than 150 employees, asked to rank the importance of their existing benefits in an anonymous questionnaire, told of a stressed and strapped work base livid over the budget cuts and extravagant expenditures they say have forced them into overwork.

"The fact that we are being asked to rate our benefits causes me to see the handwriting on the wall and totally infuriates me," wrote one employee. And another: "Are you kidding? Are you trying to make slaves out of us?"

Coupled with the dissatisfaction are suggestions on how the city could save money. Some target internal policies like take-home vehicles, random drug testing and the hiring of a fire training chief. Others offer unorthodox ideas, like giving outgoing employees certificates instead of plaques.

Among the ideas suggested most often, and the city's response:

Suggestion: Raise the millage rate, used to calculate personal property taxes, or dip into reserves.

City response: The City Commission chose this year to keep the millage rate at its 2008 level, the lowest in more than a decade.

That rate pinches the city's finances as taxable property value has dropped 12 percent. But, City Manager Rob DiSpirito said, it also helps homeowners save money.

As for Dunedin's $15 million in reserves, Mayor Dave Eggers said city officials would prefer to save the "one-time money."

Suggestion: Delay big projects like the Kiwanis Sprayground, which opened this month, and the Josiah Cephus Weaver Park.

Response: Most of that capital improvement money, Eggers said, "can't be used to offset operating costs or to save another job." External funding, like the Dunedin Kiwanis Club's contribution to the water park and the state and county grants that paid for the Weaver property, must be used for special projects.

Suggestion: Stop waiving fees for public events held downtown and citywide.

Response: This idea is one the city has just begun to back. Dunedin will no longer pay for things like barricades, cleaning and security at events like Art Harvest and Mardi Gras, DiSpirito said. Event coordinators will be asked to reimburse for any services the city provides.

Suggestion: Trim administrators' workweek to four days, decrease their salary or eliminate high-level positions.

Response: Some employees wrote in outrage at the city leaders' "top heavy" pay scale, and DiSpirito in particular, who some wrote earned a 13 percent raise in January. That claim was false: Dunedin employees, including DiSpirito, were eligible for a maximum 3 percent raise last year, said Human Resources director Nancy Duggan.

No new raises will be given for the new fiscal year starting in October except for union firefighters, who will receive 4 percent increases.

DiSpirito, who runs the city, earns $143,690.77 a year. Eggers earns $10,000 and commissioners earn $8,000.

Salaries for department heads, which top Dunedin's payroll, will not be cut, although the assistant city manager position has been renamed "assistant to the city manager'' and its pay decreased from $120,000 to $76,000.

The Employee Action Committee, upon receiving the questionnaires, wrote that a minor increase in taxes or tapping into reserves could eliminate layoffs. The proposed budget calls for 10 layoffs and eight frozen positions, on top of 18 position freezes, layoffs and retirements last year.

Committee members also suggested seven initiatives pushed by responding employees, like eliminating free coffee, paper payroll checks and holiday trash pickup. Tiered employee health care and opt-out options should be considered, they added, and minimum travel and overtime spending should continue.

Eggers said he appreciated the feedback, no matter how negative.

"You get that feeling that employees are frustrated with what's going on, and I can understand that," Eggers said. Dealing with layoffs and lost revenue can be "very stressful. I get it."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Dunedin workers: Preserve our jobs, benefits 07/20/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 20, 2009 10:26pm]
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