OLDSMAR — The city has declared an impasse in union contract negotiations with its rank-and-file firefighters.
The biggest obstacle to reaching agreement, according to the union: The city wants to force the firefighters back into the state public employees retirement system, where they would not get credit for the years they worked under the city pension plan.
The two sides still are talking — the next negotiating session is scheduled for Jan. 6 — but City Manager Bruce Haddock declared the impasse in a Dec. 5 letter to the Public Employee Relations Commission in Tallahassee.
Haddock wrote there are four areas of disagreement: "holidays, pay plan, retirement benefits and benefits supplement.'' He requested a list of names of qualified special magistrates that could hear the case.
Haddock declined to comment for this story. However, Jason Schwabe, who represents International Association of Firefighters Local 2980, which represents Palm Harbor and Oldsmar firefighters, said retirement benefits are the primary hurdle to reaching agreement.
"We're still meeting and we still might be able to reach an agreement, but I think the city just feels like it's not going further ahead so they sent the letter,'' Schwabe said.
According to Schwabe, the city wants to move the firefighters out of their current pension plan, a city-managed plan, back into the Florida Retirement System plan, administered by the state's retirement division. City firefighters participated in that plan until 1996.
However, firefighters "would lose the number of years of service we've earned towards retirement,'' Schwabe said. "We'd have to start back at zero.''
For more than four months, the city and firefighters have been discussing the collective bargaining agreement that expired on Sept. 30.
"Early on, the non-economic items were agreed upon ... like the clean-up items. Instead of distributing a hard copy of the contract, there will be a computer copy of the contract available, for example,'' Schwabe said.
However, when the talks turned to benefits, firefighters were disappointed. At first they hoped that if they did change to the state system, they could buy back their years of service.
"Say if a firefighter started in 2001, they'd have about 13 years in the city plan. We wanted that to mean that if the city pension plan was terminated, that the firefighter could take his money in the plan, say $50,000, and buy the 13 years of time, but it can't be done because of the way the state has it set up,'' Schwabe said. "We want to keep what we have. Our focus is limiting the cost so that we can stay in the city plan.''
When Schwabe was asked why he thought the city wanted to make the changes, he recalled what he said Haddock told him: "The reason explained to me was that the city wanted to get out of the pension business.''
Oldsmar already has reached agreement with the unit that represents Oldsmar fire supervisors. That contract was finalized by the City Council on Dec. 3.
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or [email protected]