LARGO — Largo's firefighters have a new collective bargaining agreement and, for the first time since 2009, it's a contract that both the union and city management agreed on.
None of the city's 130 or so firefighters will get a raise in 2011, and probably not in 2012, either. And the reimbursement for firefighters who don't take the city's health insurance plan was dropped from $8,000 to $5,000, a move city management estimates will save Largo's coffers $120,000.
But just because the two sides were finally able to reach middle ground after a nearly two-year struggle doesn't necessarily mean that all is peaches and cream between commissioners and the union.
As Commissioner Harriet Crozier looked out at the sparse audience at Tuesday's City Commission meeting, she noticed the absence of any firefighters, save for Chief Mike Wallace, who is not a member of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2427.
"Here we are ratifying this with the union … and I don't see any of them out here to say 'Thank you for going along and giving us such a wonderful agreement,' " Crozier said just before voting Tuesday night to approve the contract.
"To me, that was a big slap in the face," Crozier said later in the week. "Sometimes you look into the audience as an elected official, and you know that you give these men and women what they need to do their job the best, and you're proud of them, and they don't even care enough to come to one stinking meeting?"
Mayor Pat Gerard did not take similar offense.
"We've been negotiating that one for so long, they knew pretty well we were going to approve it with no real changes," Gerard said. "What's the point of them showing up?"
Union representatives did not return calls for comment this week, but did e-mail a statement to the St. Petersburg Times Thursday evening.
"We are relying on the words of Mayor Pat Gerard when she said that we have to trust the City Commission to take care of them during these tough times," Local president Dale Rosko wrote. "Our firefighters believe in the city of Largo, the citizens, and its elected officials that we risk our lives to serve. We truly believe they will take care of us when times are better."
Largo firefighters have been working without a new contract since October 2009, when a three-year deal signed in 2006 expired. Talks for a new deal stretched into 2010, held up by debates over vacation time and the fire department's long-standing raise system, or step plan. The two sides eventually brought in a special magistrate to render a nonbinding opinion on the impasse.
The magistrate did, and the City Commission promptly rejected his recommendations. The commission imposed a new contract on firefighters last August, eliminating the step plan.
The process started over again this year, and this time reimbursement for fire department employees who don't join the city's group health plan became a sticking point, Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert said.
Under the contract that expired in 2009, fire department employees who didn't join the city's plan received a reimbursement of about $8,000, Schubert said. Some younger employees found it beneficial to search for cheap coverage on the open market, Schubert said, and take the reimbursement.
"The problem is, we don't want to lose the young, healthy people in our new health insurance plan," Schubert said this week.
The new contract only allows fire department employees who have certain group insurance plans — through their spouses, former employers or military coverage, for example — not to sign up for the city's plan. The reimbursement for those employees was dropped from $8,000 to $5,000.
Crozier wondered last week if the city gave away too much, pointing out that members of the police union don't get $5,000 if they forego city health coverage. Police union members get $2,600, Schubert said.
But both Schubert and Gerard believe the relationship between the fire union and city management has improved since 2010. They won't have to wait too long to prove that again; the new contract expires Sept. 30, 2012.
"We have our job, and they have their job," Gerard said. The relationship, she said, is "still good."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or email@example.com.