LARGO — Commissioners put to rest a long-running contract dispute between the city firefighters union and city management, voting in a split decision in favor of management on both major issues.
The votes eliminated a long-standing fire department raise system, called a step plan, in favor of a more traditional pay range (a 6-1 vote), and reduced standard vacation time (5-2).
According to assistant city manager Henry Schubert, the reductions were necessary for the city to remain financially flexible at a time when revenue to the city has been in decline and county fire rescue supplements are dwindling.
"As we are all painfully aware, our nation and our city are faced with difficult economic challenges … We cannot do business as usual just because it worked in the past," Schubert said.
Mayor Patricia Gerard, who voted in favor of management, said her decision was for the best interests of all Largo, not only its firefighters.
"As much as we love our firefighters, my responsibility is to be fair to every employee in the city. As far as we can tell — someone can try to argue me out of this one — the economy is not going to get better any time soon," Gerard said.
The dispute began last fall when city management refused to offer the raises and vacation time the firefighters asked for.
The parties reached an impasse in February, and brought in a special magistrate who issued a recommendation that split the difference between the city and union's positions on vacation and pay raises.
The union accepted the recommendation, the city did not, and the issue came before commissioners.
Commissioner Gigi Arntzen voted against cutting vacation time, but in favor of the new raise system. Robert Murray voted in favor of the union on both issues.
"By having a frozen step raise, it doesn't cost us anything for two years," Murray said. "I agree with the magistrate's recommendation."
Walter Dix, a representative for the International Association of Fire Fighters, said the step plan raise system should remain in place because it was the system used by other Pinellas fire departments.
Dix also argued that since Largo firefighters receive less vacation time than firefighters in Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park, vacation days should not be reduced as much as the city wanted.
The union will now either ratify the contract offered by the city for three years, or be forced to accept it for one year.
Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or firstname.lastname@example.org.