OLDSMAR — City negotiators and the union representing the city's rank-and-file firefighters appeared before a special magistrate last week in an attempt to resolve their impasse over a new fire union contract.
Pay raises and retirement benefits are the two sticking points.
At the hearing, the sides were able to agree on the raise issue: Firefighters will get merit raises of 2, 2.5 and 3 percent over the next three years.
However, the retirement benefits continue to be a major sticking point.
Citing the long-term maintenance costs associated with the current city pension plan, city officials want to freeze it and move firefighters into the state public employees retirement system. Firefighters would be given a choice to either keep their money in the frozen plan until retirement or receive their accrued benefits as a lump-sum payout.
"We feel like the current plan is doing well,'' said Jason Schwabe, who represents International Association of Firefighters Local 2980, which represents Palm Harbor and Oldsmar firefighters. "A main concern is if we go to the state plan, we would lose the number of years of service we have already put in. We'd start all over at Day One.''
Schwabe was 25 in 2001 when he became an Oldsmar firefighter.
"Currently, I have 13 years of service. If I stay in the city's plan, this means I could retire in 12 more years — at 50,'' he said. "But, if I go into the state system, I can't retire for almost another 25 years.''
During negotiations, the union suggested other options, including keeping current members in the city pension plan but closing it to new employees, Schwabe said.
"With the close, they wouldn't have new people adding to their liability,'' he said. "But they were steadfast in freezing it.''
City Manager Bruce Haddock said he agrees with Schwabe that the current city plan is in good shape financially.
"But I think that the issue is the cost the city is likely to face over a long period of time, and by that I mean 20 to 30 years,'' Haddock said.
Special magistrate John McCollister gave the city and union until May 1 to send him their post-hearing briefs. After that, he will make his recommendations to resolve the impasse.
If an agreement still isn't reached, the issue will go back to the City Council for final resolution.
Haddock acknowledged that the negotiating process is never easy.
"One of the points that I was pleased about in terms of what happened at the hearing was that the union accepted our pay proposal … Now we'll just wait to hear what the magistrate says and go from there.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4163. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.