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Fire cuts begin;4 must go so far

Four Fire Department employees became some of the first victims of property tax reform and the poor economy when they were told they'll be laid off.

Those laid off were two firefighters and two administrative employees. Six positions are being eliminated in the Seminole Fire Department, but two slots were already vacant so only four people lost their jobs.

"Basically, these people are being forced into retirement. They're not leaving on their own terms," said Art Bruckler, spokesman for the Seminole firefighters union. "It's devastating for us to see that."

The four could be the first of up to 17 layoffs for the Seminole department if the actual budget numbers are worse than the city is predicting. Those numbers will not be known until later this year.

Laid off were two fire lieutenants: Robert Davidson, 46, a 25-year employee who makes $62,162 a year, and Kenneth Eversole, 51, who has worked for Seminole for almost 27 years and earns $65,242 a year. Their last day will be May 31.

Already gone are Trevor Younce, 30, a custodian earning $11.99 an hour, and administrative assistant Patrycja Ilnicka, 31, who made $20.15 an hour. Both had worked for the city for more than six years.

In 2006, Ilnicka and a former city employee accused City Manager Frank Edmunds of sexual harassment that included inappropriate touching and comments.

Edmunds denied the charges and a federal investigator found no evidence to sustain the charges.

"The city is reacting because of what's happened throughout the state. Our biggest complaint right now is with the governor," Bruckler said.

When Gov. Charlie Crist was campaigning for the passage of Amendment 1, he "basically pounded his fist" and guaranteed no firefighter would lose his job.

"He has said that repeatedly," Bruckler said. "But the reality is people are losing their jobs. … I am very bitter towards the governor."

Bruckler said his bitterness was increased because no one from Crist's office has returned his calls or e-mails. "I'd be very interested in talking to him and telling him about the people we're losing," Bruckler said. "In 27 years, I never thought I'd see anything like this."

Crist did not return a phone message from the Times asking for comment.

Also criticizing Crist was state Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, who said Amendment 1 would never have passed had it not been for the heavily financed Crist juggernaut.

It was impossible, she said, for anyone else, especially less well-funded firefighters and teachers, to be heard. "People trust him, or trusted him," Long said.

The Seminole Fire District covers both the city and a portion of unincorporated Pinellas. The county levies taxes from property owners in the unincorporated portion to pay the city for providing service there. About 75 percent of the overall Seminole fire budget comes from the unincorporated area. The remainder comes from city funds.

County officials have said they do not plan to raise taxes because that would fly in the face of voter sentiment.

"I know the Seminole Fire District is in for some tough times," Pinellas County Commissioner Bob Stewart said Thursday. "With the squeeze of Amendment 1 … the fire department is going to take a bump. … There will be an impact in personnel, no doubt about it."

Stewart added, "I hope that there won't be a drop in response time."

The decision to eliminate positions and lay off employees came after Seminole estimated the cumulative effect of the Legislature's mandated tax rate rollback and of Amendment 1 on revenue for fire and emergency medical services.

Compounding the problem are decreasing property values and a poor economy.

The total projected loss for the unincorporated portion of the district is $1.4-million, or about 14.3 percent of the district's overall $9.8-million budget.

Although the city can use other funding sources, such as franchise fees, to help pay for its portion of the district, the county cannot.

Law mandates monies for independent and dependent fire districts, like that of unincorporated Seminole, come only from property taxes. The predicted shortfall of $1.4-million would mean the loss of 17 positions from the Seminole Fire Department.

Many of those 17 would be fire and emergency workers.

The loss of that many people would severely affect the speed with which firefighters could respond to calls, Edmunds said.

To try to avoid an immediate, drastic drop in service, Edmunds said the department cut $192,470 from the department's operating budget. He also asked Pinellas County Administrator Fred Marquis to release half of an estimated $1-million in reserve funds to help offset the potential loss.

Marquis seemed willing, but the final decision belongs to the County Commission.

Those two strategies allowed the city to limit the cut positions to six, although that number could go up if the actual figures come in lower than the estimates.

Even so, those six positions are just the beginning.

Edmunds predicted that by the end of three years, the department will be down the 17 positions because it's unlikely the economy will get better over the next two or three years.

By stretching the cuts over three years, Edmunds said he hoped to limit the impact on service and could avoid laying off some by not filling positions vacated by attrition.

Fire cuts begin;4 must go so far 03/01/08 [Last modified: Saturday, March 1, 2008 5:02am]
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