OLDSMAR — After more than a year without an agreement, city leaders have approved a new union contract with Oldsmar firefighters.
Firefighters have been working without a new contract since October 2010, when their last three-year deal expired.
"It's been a long, treacherous road," said Jason Schwabe, district vice president of the Palm Harbor/Oldsmar Professional Firefighters Local 2980.
The city declared an impasse last fall, but the parties never met with a mediator. In December, they came to a tentative agreement to resolve outstanding issues. The City Council approved it Tuesday night.
Schwabe said the key sticking points involved retirement benefits. They centered on how much firefighters contribute toward their pension plan and on a component that affects how their benefits are calculated.
The approved agreement raises the firefighters' contribution rates to their pensions from 2 to 5 percent. And it includes a compromise on the multiplier used to determine pension payments.
Al Braithwaite, the city's chief negotiator, said it was necessary to do something about rising pension costs before they became unsustainable.
"The cost of the entire department is very expensive and getting more so, and nowhere is that more obvious than the cost of providing their pension benefits," said Braithwaite, Oldsmar's director of administrative services.
The issue is especially crucial because Oldsmar's general fund pays for the fire department, and the cost of providing fire service has kept growing even as revenue for that fund has continued to dwindle, he said.
The new contract also includes 2 percent merit raises for firefighters this budget year and next.
Schwabe said the pay raise was a victory of sorts and that it helped balance some of the concessions the union made.
"I thought it was a good compromise for the economic times that we're in," Schwabe said.
Firefighters in the unit, which also includes fire inspectors, approved the contract by a 12-4 vote.
Another bargaining unit, which includes five fire department supervisors, is still in negotiations with the city. But Schwabe said those issues are less contentious. Among other things, they involve proposed changes in contract language. Schwabe said the union is leery of those changes because it's concerned they may affect future benefits.
"We want to make sure that someone promoted stays in their current pension plan," Schwabe said.
Another meeting between city and union representatives is scheduled for next week, Braithwaite said.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155. Go to tampabay.com/letters to write a letter to the editor.